A change of policy at Nominet


Nominet is the Registry for .uk, the UK’s country code top-level domain (ccTLD). Nominet determines the rules which govern the kind of web site names people can create and use in association with .uk.

Rules and the absence of rules

Nominet has rules of a technical nature e.g. about how many characters are permitted in a domain name, what sort of characters are allowed and are not allowed.

There are rules about trade marks which, if broken, could lead to a web site name being suspended and ultimately cancelled.

Similarly where registrant data is incomplete or it is brought to Nominet’s attention that an associated website is involved in criminal activity then this too would lead to action being taken which could result in the domain name being withdrawn.

Beyond that essentially Nominet has run an open door, first come first served policy. Pretty much any name anyone might think of could be registered and it would stand. Nominet did not prohibit specific types of names and so it has never had proactive machinery to root them out. This policy allowed a number of appalling domain names to get through and remain in use perhaps for significant periods of time.

The heavy artillery arrives

At Nominet’s request Lord Ken Macdonald QC, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, was brought in to advise on whether or to what extent their existing policy could and should be amended.  Fears were subsequently expressed by a range of interests both as to the technical complexity, and therefore the practicality of Nominet moving towards a more interventionist role in policing names, and the implications this might have for free speech.

No change

Macdonald has reported. He came down firmly against any idea that Nominet should have a role in

policing questions of taste or offensiveness on the internet 

Big change

However, Macdonald was equally clear that Nominet should consider instituting

a system of post-registration screening, to be conducted within 48 hours of registration, for domain names which appear to signal sex crime content, or to amount in themselves to sex crimes.

Nominet agrees to change

Nominet has accepted this latter recommendation on the terms suggested. Well done Macdonald for coming up with it and well done Nominet for agreeing to it.

What this means, for example, is that in future where someone registers a name which advertises the availability of child abuse images the new system will find it within 48 hours and strike it down. Domain names which appear to incite or promote rape will similarly be caught. Nominet’s Terms and Conditions will be amended to make the new policy explicit.

Human eyes will look and a human being will take the decision about whether or not a given name breaches the policy. Matters will not be left to a piece of software. The key point though is  Nominet will no longer have to wait for a referral from the police or a member of the public.

Seemingly there were very few occasions where names of the type just referred to did, in fact, appear within .uk but an important, normative principle is being established here. It could and should reverberate around the internet world.

To encourage the others

Thus I very much hope Nominet will use its considerable reach in the global community of Registries, and above all within the virtual and real corridors of ICANN, to encourage others to follow their lead. If something is a crime within a particular jurisdiction no part of the internet infrastructure within that territory should sit idly by while their resources are used to further such purposes. This is important because we know law enforcement are hugely overstretched when it comes to dealing with internet crime. And remember, in principle, this is nothing whatsoever to do with the content that might appear on a site. The question turns solely on what the domain name itself signifies.

Is there any jurisdiction where it is legal to advertise the availability of child abuse images or to promote or incite rape? I don’t think so, in which case on what basis would any Registry want to turn away from doing whatever it could to ensure people intent on that kind of behaviour receive no help from them?

Wider issues

As for Macdonald’s first point, I think it is unduly cautious but I do not deny it has some force. He acknowledges that the Irish Registry, responsible for .ie, has adopted a taste and decency policy, but Macdonald makes no further comment about it.

In the body of his report Macdonald is clear that if Parliament and government are content to allow Nominet to have an open registration policy, with no boundaries as to the type of names which can be registered to the left of .uk, then it is no business of Nominet’s, of its own volition, to challenge or change that status quo.

Macdonald advances two key reasons for his view. First he does not think Nominet is equipped to make decisions of the kind alluded to but principally his arguments centre on free speech rights and the laws supporting them.

Yes, but….

I guess my only point is that we currently have hundreds of domain name endings and we will soon have thousands. Consequently I simply do not accept that if one Registry e.g. .uk, decides it wishes to impose limits on the sorts of names it will accept, that this somehow represents any sort of meaningful erosion of free speech or free expression.

Suppose a book store were to open in Britain and say it would never sell books which had particular themes. Would that be wrong? Could we criticise them for undermining artistic freedom? Maybe we could if they were the only book store in the land but we know there are lots of bookstores and few will follow the same line. Assuming Ireland is bound by the same international human rights laws as we are, is the Irish Registry behaving illegally or just badly? Leaving aside names which indicate criminal intent, must all ccTLDs eschew any and all other restrictions in relation to domain names? If not, why not?

Anyway, I have said my piece.  I agree it would be better if Parliament and government took the lead on an issue of this kind. The ball is now in their court.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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