Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has extended the jurisdiction of her sprawling department to the Internet. The “Homeland Security Investigations” division of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized control of 82 websites last week. Considering the mess Ms. Napolitano has made of airport screening, it’s a bad idea to let Big Sister decide which websites will be allowed to exist in the future.
In announcing the latest confiscation, ICE officials staged a press conference showcasing counterfeit goods allegedly sold by some of the websites. Highlighting this clearly illegal activity was intended to overshadow the fact that other affected websites may not actually have violated any law. The department grabbed several file-sharing websites that did not themselves host unlawful content under the dubious theory that the sites assisted users looking for free movies and music over the Internet. This ought to raise an alarm at search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing, which are just as useful to anyone seeking illicit material.
Less than two weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to hand the attorney general the same power to shut down websites that Ms. Napolitano is currently exercising without any clear legal authority. With the clock ticking on the lame-duck Congress, the Senate proposal stands little chance of becoming law.
While misguided, the Senate bill is correct on one point: Copyright enforcement has nothing to do with homeland security. The Obama administration thinks otherwise. “The protection of intellectual property is a top priority for Homeland Security Investigations,” ICE Director John Morton said in a statement issued yesterday. That would come as a surprise to the authors of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the document that created Ms. Napolitano’s department. The 187-page law makes only one reference to copyright enforcement, pointing out that the revenue-collection function of copyright belongs in the Treasury Department. The post-9/11 government reorganization effort was meant to refocus existing resources on the mission of securing physical borders. This does include preventing the smuggling of counterfeit goods into the country, but it does not mean venturing into the dangerous business of online censorship.
Mr. Morton revealed the Homeland Security Department’s true motivation in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July. He bragged about working closely with the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, which now provide “focused training” for customs officials. On June 30, a total of 75 of these highly trained ICE agents were tasked with seizing nine websites accused of sharing movies. This bold expansion of government authority was announced at Walt Disney Studios, emphasizing just how in the pocket of Hollywood this administration has become.
Ms. Napolitano’s priority should be to protect the homeland - especially our borders - not to squander resources protecting the business model of an industry that’s been most generous in its support of President Obama and his party. Government agencies shouldn’t be allowed to silence free speech as political payback.