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Government forces Nominet into ludicrous porn review

Kevin Murphy, September 9, 2013, 16:45:59 (UTC), Domain Policy

Should Nominet ban dirty words from the .uk namespace?

Obviously not, but that’s nevertheless the subject of a formal policy review announced by Nominet today, forced by pressure from the British government and the Murdoch press.

Nominet said it has hired Ken MacDonald, former director of public prosecutions, to carry out the review.

He’s tasked with recommending whether certain “offensive” words and phrases should be banned from the .uk zone.

According to Nominet, MacDonald’s qualifications include his role as a trustee of the pro-free-speech Index on Censorship and a human rights audit he carried out for the Internet Watch Foundation, the UK’s child abuse material watchdog.

Nominet said:

Lord Macdonald will work with Nominet’s policy team to conduct a series of meetings with key stakeholders, and to review and assess wider contributions from the internet community, which should be received by 4 November 2013. The goal is to deliver a report to Nominet’s board in December of this year, which will be published shortly thereafter.

You can contribute here.

The review was promised by Nominet in early August following an article in the Sunday Times, subsequently cribbed quite shamelessly by the Daily Mail, which highlighted the fact that Nominet’s policies do not ban strings suggesting extreme or illegal pornography.

You may recall a rant-and-a-half DI published at the time.

While my rant was written without the benefit of any input from Nominet — I didn’t speak to anyone there before publishing it — it appears that Nominet already had exactly the same concerns as me.

The company has published a set of lightly redacted correspondence (pdf) between itself and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which makes for extremely illuminating reading.

In a July 23 letter to DCMS minister Ed Vaizey, Nominet CEO Lesley Cowley uses many of the same arguments — even giving the same examples — as I did a week later. She was much more polite, of course.

She points out that as a matter of principle it probably should not be left to a private company such as Nominet to determine what is and isn’t acceptable content, and that it’s difficult to tell what the content of a site will be at the point the domain is registered anyway.

In relation to the questions of practicality, the permutations of offensive words and phrases that can be created in the 63 characters of a domain name are almost limitless, so the creation of some kind of exclusion list would ultimately not prevent offensive phrases being registered as domain names. Were we to have a set of words or phrases that could not be registered, we would likely end up restricting many legitimate registrations. A good example is Scunthorpe.co.uk, which contains an offensive term within the domain name, or therapist.co.uk which could be read in more than one way.

She also points out that domains such as “childabuse.co.uk”, which may on the face of it cause concern, actually just redirect to the NSPCC, the UK’s main child abuse prevention charity.

The real eye-opening correspondence discusses the Sunday Times article that first compelled Vaizey to lean on Nominet.

As I discussed in my rant, it was based on the musings of just one guy, a purported expert in internet safety called John Carr, who once worked for the IWF and now apparently advises the government.

The examples of “offensive” domains he had supplied the Sunday Times with, I discovered, were either unregistered or contained no illegal content whatsoever.

Nominet’s correspondence contains several more .uk domains that Carr had given the newspaper, and they’re even less “offensive” than the “rape”-oriented ones it eventually published.

The domains are teens‐adult‐sex‐chat.co.uk, teendirtychat.co.uk, teens.demandadult.co.uk, teenfuckbook.co.uk and ukteencamgirls.co.uk, all of which Nominet found contained legal over-18s pornography.

One of them is even owned by Playboy.

Carr, it seems, didn’t even provide the Sunday Times or Nominet privately with any domains that suggest illegal content in the string and actually contain it in the site.

Judging by the emails between Nominet’s PR people (which, admittedly, may not be the best place to obtain an objective viewpoint) the Sunday Times reporter was “not interested in the complexity of the issue” and:

has taken a very hostile stance and is broadly of the view that the internet industry is not doing enough to stop offensive (legal) content.

The Sunday Times’ downmarket sister publication, The Sun, is famous primarily for printing topless photographs of 18-year-old women (in the 1980s it was 16-year-old girls) on Page 3 every day.

The Sun, the UK’s best-selling daily, is currently resisting a valiant effort by British feminists, which I wholeheartedly support, to have Page 3 scrapped.

In other words, the level of media hypocrisy, government idiocy and registry cowardice that came together to create the MacDonald review is quite outstanding.

Still, Nominet in recent years has proven itself pretty good at making sure its independent reviews turn out the way it wants them to, so it’s looking fairly promising that this one is likely to conclude that banning rude words would be impractical and pointless.

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Comments (2)

  1. Reg says:

    See, also: Scunthorpe City Council.

  2. John Berryhill says:

    Benny Hill would have had a field day with this story.

    After Nominet blocks all the naughty bits from domain names, can the Cockney Rhyming Slang equivalents be far behind. The fans of FC Arsenal will be looking for Roger Moore in films by Arthur Rankin.

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