August 1, 2007 is a date that 32 American families are not likely to forget.
On that Wednesday, more than 100 federal agents from the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, executed search warrants on 32 homes in 16 states. The ICE agents, who were seeking mod chips for console systems, were acting in concert with employees of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the trade association operated by US video game publishers.
Among the feds and the ESA, the raids were code-named "Operation Tangled Web." The mod chip investigation began in the ICE field office in Cleveland and the case continues to be coordinated by the U.S. Attorney's office there. The raids generated a fair amount of publicity as well as criticism from some quarters.
In the more than 11 months since Operation Tangled Web, GamePolitics has been attempting to find out what happened to the 32 mod chip suspects who were targeted in the raid. In that time the feds have made no announcements concerning arrests or indictments. Although we've been in contact with ICE several times we have received no information so far.
Our search of publicly-accessible federal court records has turned up only one of the 32 search warrants. That's an indication that the others are still sealed. And in the one we did manage to locate, the probable cause section is not available, so we don't know the basis for the investigation, what the agents uncovered, etc.
But an April 7th website post may yield some clues as to the investigation's status. The author reveals that he received a target letter from the Department of Justice in relation to the raid on his home. The DOJ letter, as described by the author, seems to encourage a quick guilty plea in lieu of a full-blown indictment and federal court trial :
A few days ago I received a letter from the Department of Justice. The letter stated that I was the target of an investigation by Homeland Security (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). In the letter, they inform me, that the potential violations are:
1. Title 17 US Code, Section 1201 (in connection with the sale and installation of modification chips)
2. Title 18 US Code, Section 545 (relating to the importation or smuggling of modification chips)
3. Title 18 US Code, Section 1956 (money laundering)
The letter goes on to say that if I want to resolve the matter before I am indicted, they suggest I obtain a defense counsel. It also states that defense counsel will be in a much better position to explain the advantages of a one count felony plea. The letter goes on to say that a plea would present significant sentencing concessions on the part of the government, over the sentence that I would get, should I let the indictment process (and subsequent multiple felony convictions) proceed.
GamePolitics has learned that at least one other individual has also received such a letter. It would seem likely that many, if not all, of the 32 suspected mod chippers will be offered quick plea bargains in this fashion. Perhaps ICE and the ESA are waiting for the upcoming anniversary to make an announcement.
On the fallsinc website, the author goes on to say:
I honestly do not believe that I have violated any law, and as such, I feel I should not be charged with any crime, nor should I have my property confiscated. The actions of big business lobbyists is very apparent in this action, and destroying the lives and livelihoods of 32 people just to satisfy “The Big Three” is not a move that I see in the best interests of the people.
At this point I need all the help I can get. If you are a video gaming or linux enthusiast, or just a user who enjoys the ability to get more out of legally purchased hardware, I need you at my side...
A copy of an Operation Tangled Web search warrant obtained by GamePolitics from publicly-accessible federal court records shows that 10 WiiKey modchips and one Xeno modchip were among items seized from an Ohio residence believed to be that of the author of the fallsinc website.
Mod chips are illegal in the United States under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). They are not illegal, however, in some other countries, including Australia and Canada. Last month, a court in the UK dismissed a case against a British mod chipper, ruling that mod chips do not violate copyright under English law.
ESA CEO Michael Gallagher is quoted on Operation Tangled Web in the organization's 2007 year-end piracy report:
As an industry, we protect our intellectual property, encourage our government to crack down on those who break the law, and urge other governments to take similar action against video game pirates. Yearly worldwide game piracy costs total over $3 billion and it impinges on businesses and employees who create, develop, and distribute innovative products.
The ESA will work with federal law enforcement to ensure that those engaged in the illegal trade of circumvention devices are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.