MANILA, Philippines — Filipinos who get their fix of TV shows and movies from their run-of-the-mill torrent directories would be surprised that some of these sites have recently migrated to a domain extension much closer to home.
The move was initiated by KickAssTorrents in 2011, with its move to a kat.ph domain around April. Just recently, popular torrent site Demonoid followed suit, as it redirected its .com domain to a Demonoid.ph one this April.
But what do these domain movements mean? Does it mean that these torrent sites have established operations in the Philippines?
Not necessarily, according to information security and cybercrime expert Drexx Laggui. The situation is actually far more complex, and highlights the complicated web with which domain governance and Internet laws in the country are currently tangled in.
The recent domain migrations actually stem from intensified efforts by US Federal agencies to curb the illegal distribution of copyrighted content over the Internet, particularly through peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent.
In fact, in October last year, a number of torrent and file-hosting sites have been placed under a list of “notorious” pirate sites submitted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to the US government — Demonoid and KickAssTorrents included.
Offshore domains as safe haven
According to a report by Wired.com in March, a recent domain seizure case in the US against a company based in Canada has made it possible for US authorities to go after erring websites that use any of the most common top-level domains due to the ownership structure of these extensions.
Technically, most .com, .net, and .org domains were contracted out to a company called Network Solutions in 1999, which was then acquired by US Internet infrastructure firm VeriSign in 2000.
“That cemented control of all-important .com and .net domains with a U.S. company – VeriSign – putting every website using one of those addresses firmly within reach of American courts regardless of where the owners are located – possibly forever,” the Wired report said.
With the shuttering of file-hosting site Megaupload by US authorities in January, things got a little bit more real for the sites on MPAA’s “notorious” list, prompting them to look for places beyond the reach of the US government.
And for some of those sites, the Philippines seems to be a good option. “What they are doing with their use of .ph domains is simply exploiting the transnational nature of the Internet, and the aging anti-piracy laws that try to come after them, to prevent domain name seizures,” explained Laggui.
Far from US reach
Any entity trying to order the closure of a website in the Philippines, according to Laggui, would find it a bit more “challenging,” to say the least.
“Primarily, we have primitive laws regarding the governance of our cyberspace,” he said. In fact, the only Internet-related law in effect in the Philippines is the E-Commerce Act of 2000, which was established following the spread of the ILOVEYOU virus worldwide.
“The challenge includes the acquisition and then presentation of evidence to a local trial court,” Laggui added. “How can electronic evidence be acquired, in an economical manner, when the physical web server is in another country?”
In their move to a .ph domain, the two torrent sites possibly transacted with dotPH Domains, Inc., the sole and official domain registry of the Philippines.
But unlike other countries where country-code top-level domains (ccTLD) are administered by the government or a government-sanctioned organization, the .ph domains are being sold by a private individual, which has already been the subject of long and tortuous disputes in the early days of Philippine Internet.
Also unlike other countries with strict requirements for the use of their ccTLD, dotPH doesn’t screen for content, according to Emil Avancena, corporate communications manager at dotPH.
“When a domain is registered, we have no way of knowing or confirming what it will be used for,” Avancena told InterAksyon. “And once the domain is being used, well, it’s impossible to keep track of thousands upon thousands of websites, which can change their content at any moment.”
The dotPH official said they “do not condone the use of .ph domains for illegal purposes,” adding that they are prepared to cooperate with authorities should any legal irregularities be identified.
“As soon as a competent Philippine authority (such as a court) has determined that a domain is being used for illegal purposes, we’ll take it down right away,” he said.
Lack of legal framework
But therein lies the conundrum: the Philippine legal system has yet to adapt to 21st-century crimes being committed through the Internet today, making the Philippines a “haven” for cybercrime groups and syndicates looking to evade arrest by foreign entities.
A unit of the Philippine National Police went so far as to label the country as a “cybermafia haven,” in effect coddling international cybercriminals and syndicates with the absence of a legal framework to prosecute such criminal acts.
Recently, however, both houses of Congress have begun moving to establish an Anti-Cybercrime law in the country, with the hope of passing such piece of legislation within the year.
But until such a legal framework has been put in place, torrent sites and other web properties that have been deemed illegal in other countries would continue to perpetuate, thanks to online destinations such as the Philippines.
“Realistically, the Philippine government is not even aware that the torrent-hosting sites are using .ph to exploit transnational weaknesses in law enforcement,” Laggui said.
And with cybercrime legislation moving at a glacial place in both houses of Congress, Laggui said changes to how things are being done won’t take effect overnight. “It’s a long process that I don’t see happening, nor even starting, any time soon,” he stressed.