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Nominet bans rape domains

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2014, 16:28:40 (UTC), Domain Policy

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.

Macdonald wrote:

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?

The Macdonald report was commissioned following an outraged Sunday Times article based on a blog post by anti-porn crusader John Carr, who wanted a ban on “depraved or disgusting words”.

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Gypsum Fantastic says:

    Unfortunately there is a strong internet censorship lobby at the moment here in the UK.

    I don’t believe they should be allowed to ban a domain name, it should be the content of a website itself that should be used to determine whether it is illegal or not.

  2. At the risk of being misconstrued, I’ll stick my neck out here and say that this is an alarming step toward broader internet censorship.

    Of course, I certainly don’t wish to protect anybody who incites criminal sexual abuse. But it’s actually far from obvious that a domain name would do so while it remains merely a domain. Even some of the examples cited in this article sound like innocuous expressions that would (I’m guessing) lead to fantasy enactments between consenting adults.

    Domains are short, somewhat ambiguous and indeterminate. Trademark violations are probably the only exception. So governments, registries, and registrars ought to wait to review and ban a domain together with its actual content.

    This sentence is especially eyebrow-raising:

    “He recommended against instituting bans on swearwords and racist terms for similar reasons.”

    Swear words? But such terms are everywhere! On the street, on television, in books, you name it! How intrusive are governing bodies to become? Free speech has been fought for at too great a cost to allow prudish busybodies to take it away. And I don’t say that because I plan on registering .CO.UK naughty words.

    If Nominet can ban domains due to the presence of this or that word, then they can (in principle) ban domains containing any arbitrary list of keywords. And examples set by Nominet may be followed by other registries.

    There must be some haven for free speech. Search engines can already filter out sites from the results we see based on keywords. If registries do the same, then we lose access to content through direct navigation. At that point, communication will be forced to go underground and operate in code.

    We don’t want this.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      I may be wrong, but I think rape-themed porn (consenting adult performers, etc) is actually illegal in the UK, unlike the US. I know the regular film censor, the BBFC, often enforces cuts on movies that present rape in a titillating fashion.

      • John Berryhill says:

        Except for rehabilitative purposes…

        “Now all the time I was watching this, I was beginning to get very aware of like not feeling all that well, but I tried to forget this, concentrating on the next film, which jumped right away on a young devotchka, who was being given the old in-out, in-out, first by one malchick, then another, then another. This seemed real, very real, though if you thought about it properly you couldn’t imagine lewdies actually agreeing to having all this done to them in a film, and if these films were made by the good, or the State, you couldn’t imagine them being allowed to take these films, without like interfering with what was going on.”

  3. Dra says:

    “They were censoring names as protecting who from what’s so exciting? What thoughts incite who? Some minds cued by the usual to do what they do? Will they ban words about shoes? Leather, tongue, high heels? As they ask in the Marines, how high? And Monty Python’s the ‘I’m a Lumberjack’ song? How could this go wrong?
    “Some states have made illegal referring to words that refer to other words now illegal.
    “Curiously, this all comes just after reports that some very rich leaders of Islam were caught by their own
    appetites for on line vices, and one season after politicians discredited themselves on their declarations on ‘legitimate rape’ having bio-responding different from illegit kinds.
    “This might seem designed to cover the elected, to declare he was misled by a post-approved bland name, and so shocked by the content that he then forgot to turn off the site, again, again, and again, again and again.”
    – by permission from Tulsa Davenport’s
    Tales of L A Noir
    © all rights reserved, 2014

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