JotForm.com Takedown: No Court Order? Apparently, No Problem

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Imagine for a moment you own a business and are being investigated for a crime. You come to work and your offices are shut down and your phones turned off by your building's management at the request of the government.

Now, take it a step further and imagine that you weren't the one being investigated; one of the other tenants in your building was the culprit. But you showed up to work and the entire building was closed, power and phone service cut off simply because the government was investigating one of the tenants for wrongdoing -- no warrant, no court order. Pretty scary, right? In the virtual world, apparently, that's already happening.

JotForm.com, an Internet startup that allows users to post forms on Web sites and collect data, had its primary domain name shut down by GoDaddy, the company they bought it from, as the result of an investigation by the Secret Service. According to Ars Technica, JotForm.com co-owner Aytekin Tank was never notified by the government or GoDaddy.

As Ars points out in their story, this is not a site that hosts child pornography or even pirated movies, music (see MegaUpload) or software. This is simply a company that allows users to create forms and collect data.

Tank believes this may be the result of a phishing scam where spammers try to lure unsuspecting Web surfers to a site that looks like a bank or credit card company and steal their information. Tank claims to have blocked 65,000 of these accounts in the last year and employs stiff anti-phishing technology on his servers to prevent these problems. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough.

"When they have suspended jotform.com, and told us that it might take a few days to even take a look into the case, we had to do something to keep our users' forms alive," Tank told me.

"We have 700,000 users and 2,000,000 user-generated forms on our site. So, we had to make jotform.net live and email our users so that their forms will keep working. They have not provided any information about the content they would like us to disable, and we cannot keep 2,000,000 forms down for a few days. They don't seem to care about our concerns or about our customers."

As I explained back in January, this is the kind of thing to be expected if the SOPA/PIPA legislation were to be passed and the very reason so many people in the tech community were infuriated by GoDaddy's willing participation in and support of the bills.

The Internet is an incredibly complex place where often the people who provide the services used by honest companies get blamed for the actions of a few who use those services fraudulently, even if the provider does everything possible to prevent it.

In the case of JotForm.com this was done, according to reports, without a warrant or court order. GoDaddy simply complied with a request from the secret service as the result of an investigation into JotForm.com, which has affected thousands of other businesses in the process and shut down the JotForm.com domain name. To illustrate the complexity of the Web and the relative incompetency of the government on this issue, JotForm.net still exists and works just fine since it wasn't purchased from GoDaddy and the site still works because it is not on GoDaddy's servers.

I hate phishing and other scams as much as the next person. I'm no fan of pirated software, music and movies and I certainly want to see child pornographers brought to justice. But this sort of overreaching effort seems to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. What's worse, it doesn't even fix the problem or punish the criminals. The people who used JotForm.com's services illegally will get away completely unscathed and simply move to another service.

The clunky methods the feds use in a situation like this are not only ridiculous, they are completely worthless when it comes to satisfying the demands of justice. This demonstrates yet again that effective Internet policy requires the kind of nuance clearly beyond the capabilities of the federal government.

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