In spite of the State Department’s professed commitment on Tuesday to an Internet Freedom Policy that would stand up to repressive regimes seeking to hinder the Internet’s free flow of information, the United States arguably became a repressive regime of its own when it pulled the plug on 84,000 Web sites last Friday. A DHS (Department of Homeland Security) sting called Operation Protect Our Children, designed to search for and destroy Web sites trafficking in child pornography, was the enforcement action responsible for this massive and, as it turns out, erroneous shutdown.

The sites didn’t just go dark, though. Without the benefit of due process, thousands of Web site owners (many of them personal bloggers and small businesses) were doubtless thrilled to see this very specific, very accusatory message in place of what they (and their visitors and customers) were expecting to find (click on the image to bigify if it doesn’t bear the proper level of authoritarian, self-righteous finger wagging in its current, tinyfied state):

Operation Protect Our Children

“This domain name has been seized by ICE – Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by a United States District Court under the authority of Title 18 U.S.C. 2254.

“Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution.”

As it turns out, the DHS wasn’t going after 84,000 Web sites at all — just 10. Taking down mooo.com (itself a mistake, as that site hasn’t been charged with any crimes), a shared domain at afraid.org, hosted by domain name services provider FreeDNS, was all it took to start the domino effect and knock the 84,000 sites offline. Most were restored by Sunday night, but simple Internet searches still associate many of those sites with the charming message seen above.

The sad fact is that, in our society, even being associated with anything as heinous as child pornography — without the slightest proof to back up such accusations — can ruin lives. In this case, probably not 84,000 lives, but it’s not hard to believe that some percentage of the wrongfully implicated will never fully recover from the shadow of suspicion now cast over them. No matter how many times the eyebrow-raisers are told that “it was just a huge mistake,” there will always be some doubt among the stubborn holdouts who don’t require anything approximating solid evidence in order to condemn others.

It doesn’t help that the DHS is proudly holding up the 10 Web sites it has successfully removed from the equation as proof that its strategy is working, but remaining fairly quiet about the collateral damage it caused to 84,000 others. Imagine nuking a village of 84,000 people to rid it of 10 rats. While the result would technically be a “success” from the standpoint of the offending agency’s mission statement, the end obviously doesn’t justify the means. And until the DHS takes full, public responsibility for this shameful error, the real criminal in this case is… the DHS.