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Tuesday December 23rd 2014

U.S. Homeland Security Request to Mozilla Raises Sticky Openness Issues





If you’ve followed Mozilla for any length of time, you’re familiar with the company’s stringent focus on open Internet principles, but there is a challenge to the company’s focus in this arena, and it is coming from none other than the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As noted in this blog post, the DHS contacted Mozilla and requested that the company remove the MafiaaFire add-on. According to the post: "Mafiaafire, like several other similar  add-ons already available through AMO, redirects the user from one domain name to another similar to a mail forwarding service.  In this case, Mafiaafire redirects traffic from seized domains to other domains." The request raises significant issues about Internet censorship, privacy and openness.

What is specifically at issue in this case is, according to the post, that "the ICE Homeland Security Investigations unit alleged that the add-on circumvented a seizure order DHS had obtained against a number of domain names." In this way, what the add-on does is similar to what many proxy server and web anonymity programs and add-ons do. We’ve covered a number of these anonymous surfing tools before.

Mozilla has fired back several questions to the DHS, including these, found in the post:

  • Have any courts determined that the Mafiaafire add-on is unlawful or illegal in any way? If so, on what basis? (Please provide any relevant rulings)
  • Is Mozilla legally obligated to disable the add-on or is this request based on other reasons? If other reasons, can you please specify.
  • Can you please provide a copy of the relevant seizure order upon which your request to Mozilla to take down the Mafiaafire  add-on is based?

Apparently, the DHS has not replied to these questions yet, but there is already much analysis going on surrounding whether Mozilla should comply or not. Ars Technica quotes Mozilla lawyer Harvey Anderson, author of the post linked to above:

"One of the fundamental issues here is under what conditions do intermediaries accede to government requests that have a censorship effect and which may threaten the open Internet…In this case, the underlying justification arises from content holders’ legitimate desire to combat piracy. The problem stems from the use of these government powers in service of private content holders when it can have unintended and harmful consequences. Long term, the challenge is to find better mechanisms that provide both real due process and transparency without infringing upon developer and user freedoms traditionally associated with the Internet."

It remains to be seen whether Mozilla’s hand will be forced by the government here, but these types of issues always set a precedent. If Mozilla is forced to block the add-on, what comes next, and how far toward inappropriate censorship of the Internet do those steps go?

 

 

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