Lawmakers Press Verisign To Join ‘Trusted Notifier’ Program And Take More Action To Combat Piracy

For most of the last decade, the strategy of Hollywood studios and content creators in combating piracy has been in securing the cooperation of Internet companies and related actors in the ecosystem.

Earlier this year, MPA Chairman Charles Rivkin signaled a new level of cooperation with Google, after years in which the search giant was pilloried for not doing enough to combat copyright infringement.

More recently, a focus has been on the largest domain name registry, Verisign, with lawmakers querying the company on why it has declined so far to join an initiative to identify and eventually disable egregious infringing websites. Such agreements are referred to as “trusted notifier” arrangements, in which a registry or registrar is provided with accurate information about illegal website content, eventually leading to the disabling of the sites.

“Verisign serves as the registry for almost half of all domain name registrations,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the company last spring. “The company is therefore uniquely positioned to help curb this illegal activity. Its failure to do so has served as a significant contributor to the enormous scope and scale of the problem.”

Those signing the letter included Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Sen. Christopher Coons (D-DE).

The company responded to the lawmakers by saying that it has initiated discussions with industry executives “for the purpose of establishing partnerships with state and federal authorities.”

But Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos also wrote that the company was cautious about doing so, given an agreement with the Department of Commerce, dating back almost three decades, “requires us to operate in a content-neutral manner.”

“This is a unique obligation,” he wrote. “It means Verisign does not engineer it infrastructure nor adopt operational policies based on our own views about the content that might be associated with the use of our services. We are not a content platform and do not publish content.”

He suggested that while they recognize the need “to establish the expertise and legitimacy of trusted notifiers,” there also are concerns of  “due process, transparency, proportionality, provenance and recourse for affected parties.” A decade ago, those were among the concerns of opponents, led by major internet companies, to the Stop Online Piracy Act, a major piece of anti-piracy legislation which was sidelined in the face of an unprecedented online protest.

The content industry has since focused its efforts on voluntary agreements with domain name registrars and others in the internet ecosystem, with the idea of choking off support for piracy sites that are beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement. Some public interest groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge have raised concerns that legal sites will get swept up in efforts to crackdown on piracy, but the lawmakers said in their letter that trusted notifier partnerships have “functioned successfully for several years” without major issues.

In his response, Bidzos also identified areas where Verisign has tried to curb “DNS abuse.” He wrote that Verisign has been a part of programs to address the sale of illegal opioids, Covid online scams and security threats, leading to the disabling of domain names, and “we believe that the protocols and processes we developed can also be used to address domain names associated with illegal copyright theft.”

Content and industry groups, including CreativeFuture, note that other domain registrars have had trusted notifier relationships in place for years, which is what led to lawmakers’ queries as to why Verisign has yet to enter into a similar arrangement.

Dean Marks, the former executive director and legal counsel for the Coalition for Online Accountability, said that when a registry suspends the domain name of a website, “it essentially becomes unreachable on the internet.” He said that major registries like Donuts, now known as Indentity Digital, and Radix, have had trusted notifier arrangements in place for more than six years.

“These arrangements have worked well for both copyright owners and the registries,” Marks said in a statement. “Yet despite being the largest domain registry in the world and a publicly traded U.S. company, Verisign has consistently refused to enter into similar trusted notifier arrangements to address the prominent copyright piracy websites operating under their domains.”

In a statement tp Deadline, Hirono said that she will “continue pushing them to treat that responsibility with the seriousness and urgency it demands.”

“Allowing digital piracy to go unchecked results in the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs and costs our economy billions of dollars. Digital piracy leaves consumers vulnerable to malware, phishing, scams, and other serious risks online,” she said. “Domain name registration service companies have a responsibility to protect creators and consumers by working to stop online copyright piracy.”

In their letter, the lawmakers noted that, with the rise of streaming during the pandemic, so did streaming piracy, as they cited data from anti-piracy research firm MUSO showing a 33% spike in online infringement. They also cited a study from internet analytics firm Similarweb showing that the top five Verisign domain names used by piracy sites receive more than 150 million visitors each month in the U.S. alone.

Ruth Vitale, the CEO of CreativeFuture, said that Verisign “has the ability to stop servicing websites engaged in massive online infringement – which takes money out of the pockets of millions of hard-working Americans in our nation’s film and television business. Our community has requested collaboration from Verisign for years to disable the domain names of pirate websites and Members of Congress have asked as well. Yet to our frustration, Verisign refuses to take any substantive action even though other registries have successfully done so.”

Verisign did not respond to requests for comment.



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