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Registrars could be held liable for US gun violence

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2019, Domain Policy

A US presidential candidate has come out in support of amending the law to make domain name companies liable when customers use their services to incite violence.

Beto O’Rourke, a former member of Congress, stated last week that he wants to amend the Communications Decency Act to hold providers of “domain name servers” liable “where they are found to knowingly promote content that incites violence”.

He’s believed to be the first among the swarm of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls to lay out a plan to combat online hate speech.

The proposed amendments to Section 230 of the CDA are part of a sweeping package of reforms O’Rourke is proposing in order to tackle gun violence and domestic terrorism in the US.

He comes from El Paso, Texas, which was the target of a race-based terrorist attack a couple of weeks ago.

He’s also pushing for stricter gun controls, such as compulsory licensing and training.

But I’m not going to get into that stuff here. This is a blog about domain names. I’m British, so you can probably guess what my opinion on guns is.

In terms of online content, O’Rourke’s plan seems primarily aimed at getting the big social media platforms to more heavily moderate the content produced by their users.

But it specifically calls out domain name companies also:

Beto would require large internet platforms to adopt terms of service to ban hateful activities, defined as those that incite or engage in violence, intimidation, harassment, threats, or defamation targeting an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. These companies also would be required to put in place systems designed to identify and act on content violating the terms of service. Platforms must be transparent when they block content and provide for an appeal process in order to guard against abuse.

Beto supports amending Section 230 of the CDA to remove legal immunity from lawsuits for large social media platforms that fail to change their terms of service and put in place systems as described above. Informational service providers of all sizes, including domain name servers and social media platforms, also would be held liable where they are found to knowingly promote content that incites violence.

Should registrars be worried about this?

If the legal test was that registrars “knowingly promote content that incites violence”, that seems like a pretty high bar.

I’m not convinced even Epik, which has come under fire for providing domain services to the likes of Stormfront and 8chan — both of which O’Rourke cites in his policy — “knowingly promotes” incitements to violence.

That’s not to say that registrars couldn’t find themselves prosecuted or sued anyway, of course.

O’Rourke is not a current front-runner in the Democrat presidential pack. While still in the race, he’s towards the bottom of the top 10, polls suggest.

What O’Rourke’s policy statement does suggest is that the regulation of online speech could become a significant issue in the 2020 election, and that the domain name industry in the US could find itself a political football in an extremely divisive game.

Epik will sponsor 8chan’s domain, but will not host its site

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2019, Domain Registrars

Controversial free-speech registrar Epik has said it will take 8chan’s domain name business, but will not provide content delivery services for the site.

In a post entitled “Epik draws line on Acceptable Use”, CEO Rob Monster wrote:

Upon careful consideration of the recent operating history of 8Chan, and in the wake of tragic news in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend, Epik has elected to not provide content delivery services to 8Chan. This is largely due to the concern of inadequate enforcement and the elevated possibility of violent radicalization on the platform.

He wrote that a “principal” of 8chan approached the company about transferring its domain to Epik on Monday.

The domain was in fact transferred, as DI reported shortly after it happened. Monster told DI that he had not actively solicited the site’s business.

While there’s no evidence its previous registrar, Tucows, had any intention of suspending the domain, its denial-of-service protection provider, CloudFlare, has publicly ditched 8chan and accused it of being responsible for the hate that lead to the El Paso shooting on Saturday.

8chan is a wild-west message board largely frequented by people with far-right views on race. It came in for extra scrutiny when it was reported that the El Paso terrorist posted a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto to the site shortly before the attack.

The site’s current owner, Jim Watkins, posted a surreal video to Twitter yesterday claiming, among other things, that the manifesto had in fact been posted by a third party.

Monster wrote that Epik was “reticent” about allowing 8chan to use its BitMitigate service to replace CloudFlare.

Its decision was moot anyway, as during the course of Monday speculation that 8chan would move to BitMitigate caused Epik’s service provider, Voxility, to sever ties with the company.

This caused BitMitigate to “temporarily” stop working for all of its customers, though regular domain registrants were not affected, Epik said.

Monster wrote that Epik will continue to provide services to all customers that publish legal content, but that it reserves the right to deny service in cases where the site’s owner has shown itself incapable of properly moderating user-generated content.

At time of writing, 8ch.net is not resolving at all for me.

After more racist shootings, take one guess which registrar 8chan just switched to

Kevin Murphy, August 5, 2019, Domain Registrars

Controversial web forum 8chan has moved its domain name to a new registrar after it was linked to at least one of the two mass shootings that occurred in the US over the weekend.

According to Whois records, it’s just jumped to racist-friendly Epik, having been registered at Tucows since 2003.

The switch appears to have happened in the last few hours. At time of writing, you’re going to get different results depending which Whois server you ping.

Some servers continue to report Tucows as the registrar of record, perhaps using cached data, but Epik’s result looks like this:

Whois output

8chan is an image/discussion board that describes itself as “the Darkest Reaches of the Internet”. It’s reportedly heavily used by racists, extremists and those with an interest in child pornography.

It was widely linked by the media to the shooting in the border town of El Paso, Texas on Saturday, which claimed the lives of 20 people and left 26 more injured.

The suspect in the case reportedly posted to 8chan a 2,300-word racist “manifesto”, in which he ranted against Latino immigration, just 20 minutes before launching the attack.

This morning, Cloudflare announced that it would no longer provide denial-of-service attack protection for the web site, saying:

The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.

Google removed the site from its index a few years ago, due to allegations about child abuse material.

At this point, it’s not clear whether Tucows also ejected 8chan, or whether its owners decided to jump ship, perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing.

Its new home, Epik, calls itself the “Swiss bank” of domain registrars, and has actively courted sites that enable far-right political views.

The registrar openly sought the business of Gab.com, the Twitter clone used largely by those who have been banned by Twitter, after GoDaddy suspended the site’s domain last November.

In March this year, Epik CEO Rob Monster came under fire for publicly doubting the veracity of the video of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 50 people.

8chan was also frequented by the perpetrator of that attack, among others.

Epik is described as “cornering the market on websites where hate speech is thriving”, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-racist group.

Monster has said that he does not support the views of extremists, but merely wants to provide a platform where registrants can exercise their rights to free speech.

Oh, the irony! Banned anti-Islam activist shows up on “Turkish” new gTLD domain

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2019, Domain Policy

Tommy Robinson, who has been banned from most major social media platforms due to his anti-Islam “hate speech”, is now conducting business via a domain name that some believe rightfully belongs to the Muslim-majority nation of Turkey.

The registration could add fuel to the fight between ICANN and its governmental advisers over whether certain domains should be blocked or restricted.

Robinson, the nom de guerre of the man born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the far-right English Defence League and known primarily for stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK for the last decade.

He’s currently, controversially, an adviser to the UK Independence Party. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, also a thoroughly unpleasant bloke, considers Robinson so far to the right he quit the party in response to the appointment.

Over the last year, Robinson has been banned from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and had his YouTube account placed under serious restrictions. This month, he was also banned from SnapChat, and the EDL he used to lead was among a handful of far-right groups banned from Facebook.

Since his personal Facebook page went dark in February, he’s been promoting his new web site as the primary destination for his supporters.

It features news about his activities — mainly his ongoing fights against social media platforms and an overturned contempt of court conviction in the UK — as well as summaries of basically any sufficiently divisive anti-Islam, anti-immigration, or pro-Brexit stories his writers come across.

The domain he’s using is tr.news, a new gTLD domain in a Donuts-owned registry. It was registered in December via GoDaddy.

Given it’s a two-character domain, it will have been registry-reserved and would have commanded a premium price. Other two-character .news domains are currently available on GoDaddy for between $200 and $10,000 for the first year.

It will come as no surprise at all for you to learn that the domain was transferred out of GoDaddy, which occasionally kicks out customers with distasteful views, to Epik, now de facto home of those with far-right views, a couple of weeks after the web site launched.

The irony of the choice of domain is that many governments would claim that tr.news — indeed any two-character domain, in any gTLD, which matches any country-code — rightfully belongs to Turkey, a nation of about 80 million nominal Muslims.

TR is the ISO 3166-1 two-character code for Turkey, and until a couple of years ago new gTLD registries were banned from selling any of these ccTLD-match two-letter domains, due to complaints from ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

Many governments, including the UK and US, couldn’t care less who registers their matching domain. Others, such as France, Italy and Israel, want bans on specific domains such as it.pizza and il.army. Other countries have asked for blanket bans on their ccTLD-match being used at all, in any gTLD.

When new gTLDs initially launched in 2012, all ccTLD matches were banned by ICANN contract. In 2014, ICANN introduced a cumbersome government-approval system under which governments had to be consulted before their matches were released for registration.

Since December 2016, the policy (pdf) has been that registries can release any two-letter domains, subject to a provision that they not be used by registrants to falsely imply an affiliation with the country or registry with the matching ccTLD.

Robinson is certainly not making such an implication. I imagine he’d be as surprised as his readers to learn that his new domain has a Turkish connection. It’s likely the only people who noticed are ICANN nerds and the Turkish themselves.

Would the Turkish people look at tr.news and assume, from the domain alone, that it had some connection to Turkey? I think many would, though I have no idea whether they would assume it was endorsed by the government or the ccTLD registry.

Would Turkey — a government whose censorship regime makes Robinson’s social media plight look like unbounded liberalism — be happy to learn the domain matching its country code is being used primarily to deliver divisive content about the coreligionists of the vast majority of its citizens? Probably not.

But under current ICANN policy it does not appear there’s much that can be done about it. If Robinson is not attempting to pass himself of as an affiliate of the Turkish government or ccTLD registry, there’s no avenue for complaint.

However, after taking the cuffs off registries with its December 2016 pronouncement, allowing them to sell two-letter domains with barely any restrictions, ICANN has faced continued complaints from the GAC — complaints that have yet to be resolved.

The GAC has been telling ICANN for the last two years that some of its members believe the decision to release two-character names went against previous GAC advice, and ICANN has been patiently explaining the process it went through to arrive at the current policy, which included taking GAC advice and government comments into account.

In what appears to be a kind of peace offering, ICANN recently told the GAC (pdf) that it is developing an online tool that “will provide awareness of the registration of two-character domains and allow for governments to report concerns”.

The GAC, in its most-recent communique, told ICANN its members would test the tool and report back at the public meeting in Montreal this November.

The tool was not available in December, when tr.news was registered, so it’s not clear whether Turkey will have received a formal notification that its ccTLD-match domain is now registered, live, and being used to whip up mistrust of Muslims.

Update April 30: ICANN informs me that the tool has been available since February, but that it does not push notifications to governments. Rather, governments can search to see if their two-letter codes have been registered in which gTLDs.

XYZ weighs into Epik controversy with .monster fundraising domain

Kevin Murphy, March 21, 2019, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry XYZ.com has set up a domain to help raise money for victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand last week.

The domain is give.monster. It redirects to a page on Givealittle.co.nz, a Kiwi crowdfunding site, that has so far raised almost NZD 7.8 million ($5.3 million) for the victims of the attack, which killed 50 and injured many more last Friday.

Given the amount of coverage in the New Zealand press, it appears that the fundraising page is legit.

The domain is obviously a reference to Epik.com CEO Rob Monster, who has come in for criticism this week for hosting and sharing the terrorist’s video of the attack, and then suggesting it might be a hoax, as I blogged earlier today.

XYZ is able to create this domain because it is the registry for .monster, a gTLD it acquired last year that is currently slap-bang in the middle of its early access launch period.

Whois records show that the domain was created a little over an hour ago and belongs to XYZ.com LLC.

I learned about it through this comment on DI:

We are sorry to see this in our industry… Please visit http://www.Give.Monster and donate to support victims of the horrific Christchurch shootings. Thank you for your support.

XYZ.com is the registry for .xyz, .college, .rent and other gTLDs. .monster previously belonged to recruitment web site Monster.com.

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