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updated 3/30/2011 9:19:12 AM ET 2011-03-30T13:19:12

Owners of 84,000 small Web sites woke up Saturday morning (Feb. 12) to find their sites replaced by notices stating they’d been seized by the federal government for harboring child pornography. It was all a mistake, but one that the Department of Homeland Security has yet to acknowledge.

The crackdown, called “ Operation Protect Our Children,” was a joint venture between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) intending to target Internet sites promoting child pornography.

Unfortunately for clients of the free-hosting Web domain mooo.com, they were wrongfully targeted in the Web dragnet, the TorrentFreak blog reported.

Late on Friday (Feb. 11), 84,000 of mooo.com’s subdomains were “seized.” Visitors to each were redirected to a page titled “This domain name has been seized by ICE - Homeland Security Investigations.”

The page also displayed a large image bearing the logos of the DOJ and the DHS, plus legal language stating that “advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and the 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.”

Mooo.com is owned by a company called FreeDNS, which promptly complained about the site seizures. The domain seizure was reversed Sunday and the 84,000 sites slowly reverted to their old looks, a process which, for technical reasons, took three days.

FreeDNS essentially allows anyone to set up his or her own Web site. You could claim the name “johnsmith.mooo.com” and have that point to your home PC’s Internet Protocol address, all without renting out server space or signing up with a domain registrar such as Go Daddy.

It’s possible that some of the 84,000 sites hosted on mooo.com were indeed posting child pornography, but FreeDNS posted a statement that it “has never allowed this type of abuse of its DNS service.”

One amateur hosting his site with FreeDNS was outraged.

“I really try to refrain from any political comment on this blog or in any other outlet I frequent, but too much is too much,” William R. Walsh wrote on a separately hosted site. “You can rest assured that I have not and would never be found to be trafficking in such distasteful and horrific content.”

Federal officials did not mention the erroneous seizure when they issued a press release about the operation on Tuesday (Feb. 15).

“Each year, far too many children fall prey to sexual predators and all too often, these heinous acts are recorded in photos and on video and released on the Internet, “ said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. “DHS is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to shut down websites that promote child pornography to protect these children from further victimization.”

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