When the US government seized 25 petabytes of data from filesharing service Megaupload in January, copyright infringers weren't the only ones who took a hit. Countless third parties who used the service for legitimate purposes, both commercial and personal, were also caught in the government's anti-piracy dragnet. By now you probably know one of them, Kyle Goodwin of Ohio, who suffered an ill-timed hard drive crash at the time of the Megaupload seizure, leaving countless hours of precious footage for his sports website lost in digital limbo. Worse, with Megaupload's funds frozen, hosting service Carpathia has been stuck eating the costs of maintaining data that neither they nor anyone else can access.

With data seizures on the rise, questions about digital property are in dire need of answering

At a court hearing today in Virginia's Eastern District, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is presenting Goodwin's case. Speaking over the phone earlier this week, EFF's Julie Samuels commented on the case, pointing out that protections for third parties already apply in other, non-digital contexts. "Take for example if a bank is seized because there is illegal activity going on within that bank. There are processes and ways for people who weren't involved in the alleged illegal activity to get their stuff back."

This is precisely why, for the EFF and internet users in general, the coming legal battle is so crucial. It will attempt to clarify whether existing laws protecting property rights apply to digital property, a question that is in dire need of answering with government seizures of domains and websites on the rise.

Last year, an aggressive overhaul of "Operation In Our Sites," a US law enforcement effort aimed at cracking down on sites hosting illicit content, resulted in the wrongful seizure of countless legitimate domains and sites, including the forced removal of 84,000 websites hosted under mooo.com after being mistaken for hosting child pornography. The actions were taken under cover of existing law enforcement provisions, most notably the Patriot Act, whose vague language often allows for broad action with few repercussions.

"It's a trend, unfortunately, that I think is going to continue," said Samuels, "so it's important for the court in this case to exercise its equitable power to come up with a process that not only insures that individuals like Mr. Goodwin get their data back, but that sets a precedent for further cases."