Nominet has banned “rape” domains from the .uk space, following an independent review spurred by a newspaper article.
The company announced today that it is to adopt the recommendations of Lord Macdonald (pdf), who said domains that “signal or encourage serious sexual offences” should be deleted.
The policy applies retroactively and at least a dozen domains have already been suspended.
Nominet CEO Lesley Cowley said in a statement:
Even though we are only talking about a handful of domain names, we agreed that we do not want those domain names on the register – regardless of whether there was an associated website or content.
Under the new policy, Nominet will review all new domain name registrations within the first 48 hours. It said it will:
Institute a system of post-registration domain name screening, within 48 hours of registration, for domain names that appear to signal or encourage serious sexual offences. Where examples that meet these criteria are discovered, they will be suspended or de-registered.
It’s pretty vague at the moment, both in terms of what constitutes a “signal” and how the oversight process will be carried out. Nominet said it will reveal implementation details at a later date.
Importantly, there will be no pre-screening of domains for potentially offensive substrings. It will still be possible to register names if you’re a “therapist” or enjoy “grapes”.
Macdonald said in his report:
any process of pre-registration scrutiny is likely to be slow, technologically blunt, and have minimal useful impact. It would likely damage the credibility of the .uk space in the market place and it would bring few discernible advantages.
He seems to be envisaging a system of manual review, aided by keyword searches, that looks only for domains that seem to be unambiguously “egregious”. He wrote:
it is precisely because of the inadequacies of the screening technology that Nominet has available to it, and the utmost importance of avoiding unnecessary or mistaken interference with free expression rights, that any post registration screening process should be strictly designed to target only the most egregious examples
Keywords under scrutiny are likely to include “rape”, “incest”, “bestiality”, “paedophilia” and derivatives.
Macdonald noted that Nominet gets 20 – 25 registrations containing these strings per week, but that the “vast majority” were false positives that should not trigger a suspension.
The Macdonald report gives examples of existing domains that would be likely to trigger Nominet action, including rapeme.co.uk, rapemyteacher.co.uk and rapeporn.co.uk.
According to Whois records, all of the domains listed in the report have already been suspended by Nominet.
it is difficult to see any reasonable basis whatsoever upon which the registration of a domain name such as rapemyteacher.co.uk could be consistent with any reasonable terms of business that Nominet might draw up.
It’s not clear from archives whether many of these domains even led to sites with content. An Archive.org capture of rapeporn.co.uk from 2009 contains a short essay (looks like a hasty attempt to justify the domain to me) on why rape fantasy and actual rape are different.
I suspect that “rapemyteacher.co.uk” was supposed to be a joke, a play on the popular site RateMyTeachers.com.
However, in Macdonald’s view, it’s easily possible for Nominet to suspend these names without infringing anyone’s free speech rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and UK law.
He said that in some cases the domain name itself may be illegal, if it encourages others to commitment crimes. Incitement is a crime, after all.
But his report seems to envisage that the use of the word “rape” may be justifiable when used in a figurative sense not related to actual sexual violence. It would also not be banned in positive contexts such as rape victim support services.
He recommended against instituting bans on swearwords and racist terms for similar reasons.
The one thing missing from the report, and Nominet’s response to it so far, is any requirement for Nominet to disclose which domain names it has suspended under the new policy.
That would be an important oversight mechanism, in my view.
If Nominet is going to be deleting names based on an as-yet-undisclosed review process, wouldn’t free speech be served by at least telling the public what has been censored?
What if rapemyteacher.co.uk was supposed to be a parody of RateMyTeachers.com? Did Nominet just suspend a humor site for no good reason and without telling anyone but the registrant?
Neither Carr, the Sunday Times, Nominet or Macdonald have ever presented any examples of “egregious” .uk domain names leading to content encouraging or glorifying sexual violence, nor have they ever said that they’ve seen one with their own eyes.
It’s possible that such domains do not exist.
The review and the new Nominet policy, I think it’s fair to say, has probably not protected a single man, woman, child, corpse or sheep from unwelcome interference. It was, I suspect, a waste of time and resources.
But at first look the policy, properly implemented, does not appear to present a huge risk of infringing free speech rights or throwing up vast numbers of false positives.