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Nominet bans rape domains

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2014, 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.

Government forces Nominet into ludicrous porn review

Kevin Murphy, September 9, 2013, 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.

The UK is going nuts about porn and Go Daddy and Nominet are helping

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2013, Domain Policy

In recent months the unhinged right of the British press has been steadily cajoling the UK government into “doing something about internet porn”, and the government has been responding.

I’ve been itching to write about the sheer level of badly informed claptrap being aired in the media and halls of power, but until recently the story wasn’t really in my beat.

Then, this week, the domain name industry got targeted. To its shame, it responded too.

Go Daddy has started banning certain domains from its registration path and Nominet is launching a policy consultation to determine whether it should ban some strings outright from its .uk registry.

It’s my beat now. I can rant.

For avoidance of doubt, you’re reading an op-ed, written with a whisky glass in one hand and the other being used to periodically wipe flecks of foam from the corner of my mouth.

It also uses terminology DI’s more sensitive readers may not wish to read. Best click away now if that’s you.

The current political flap surrounding internet regulation seems emerged from the confluence of a few high-profile sexually motivated murders and a sudden awareness by the mainstream media — now beyond the point of dipping their toes in the murky social media waters of Twitter — of trolls.

(“Troll” is the term, rightly or wrongly, the mainstream media has co-opted for its headlines. Basically, they’re referring to the kind of obnoxious assholes who relentlessly bully others, sometimes vulnerable individuals and sometimes to the point of suicide, online.)

In May, a guy called Mark Bridger was convicted of abducting and murdering a five-year-old girl called April Jones. It was broadly believed — including by the judge — that the abduction was sexually motivated.

It was widely reported that Bridger had spent the hours leading up to the murder looking at child abuse imagery online.

It was also reported — though far less frequently — that during the same period he had watched a loop of a rape scene from the 2009 cinematic-release horror movie Last House On The Left

He’d recorded the scene on a VHS tape when it was shown on free-to-air British TV last year.

Of the two technologies he used to get his rocks off before committing his appalling crime, which do you think the media zeroed in on: the amusingly obsolete VHS or the golly-it’s-all-so-new-and-confusing internet?

Around about the same time, another consumer of child abuse material named Stuart Hazell was convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Tia Sharp. Again it was believed that the motive was sexual.

While the government had been talking about a porn crackdown since 2011, it wasn’t until last month that the prime minister, David Cameron, sensed the time was right to announce a two-pronged attack.

First, Cameron said he wants to make it harder for people to access child abuse imagery online. A noble objective.

His speech is worth reading in full, as it contains some pretty decent ideas about helping law enforcement catch abusers and producers of abuse material that weren’t well-reported.

But it also contained a call for search engines such as Bing and Google to maintain a black-list of CAM-related search terms. People search for these terms will never get results, but they might get a police warning.

This has been roundly criticized as unworkable and amounting to censorship. If the government’s other initiatives are any guide, it’s likely to produce false positives more often than not.

Second, Cameron said he wants to make internet porn opt-in in the UK. When you sign up for a broadband account, you’ll have to check a box confirming that you want to have access to legal pornography.

This is about “protecting the children” in the other sense — helping to make sure young minds are not corrupted by exposure to complex sexual ideas they’re almost certainly not ready for.

The Open Rights Group has established that the opt-in process will look a little like this:

Notice how there are 10 categories and only one of them is related to pornography? As someone who writes about ICANN on a daily basis, I’m pretty worried about “esoteric materials” being blocked.

As a related part of this move, the government has already arranged with the six largest Wi-Fi hot-spot operators in the country to have porn filters turned on by default.

I haven’t personally tested these networks, but they’re apparently using the kind of lazy keyword filters that are already blocking access to newspaper reports about Cameron’s speech.

Censorship, in the name of “protecting the children” is already happening here in the UK.

Which brings me to Nominet and Go Daddy

Last Sunday, a guy called John Carr wrote a blog post about internet porn in the UK.

I can’t pretend I’ve ever heard of Carr, and he seems to have done a remarkably good job of staying out of Google, but apparently he’s a former board member of the commendable CAM-takedown charity the Internet Watch Foundation and a government adviser on online child safety.

He’d been given a preview of some headline-grabbing research conducted by MetaCert — a web content categorization company best known before now for working with .xxx operator ICM Registry — breaking down internet porn by the countries it is hosted in.

Because the British rank was surprisingly high, the data was widely reported in the British press on Monday. The Daily Mail — a right-wing “quality” tabloid whose bread and butter is bikini shots of D-list teenage celebrities — on Monday quoted Carr as saying:

Nominet should have a policy that websites registered under the national domain name do not contain depraved or disgusting words. People should not be able to register websites that bring disgrace to this country under the national domain name.

Now, assuming you’re a regular DI reader and have more than a passing interest in the domain name industry, you already know how ludicrous a thing to say this is.

Network Solutions, when it had a monopoly on .com domains, had a “seven dirty words” ban for a long time, until growers of shitake mushrooms and Scunthorpe Council pointed out that it was stupid.

You don’t even need to be a domain name aficionado to have been forwarded the hilarious “penisland.net” and “therapistfinder.com” memes — they’re as old as the hills, in internet terms.

Assuming he was not misquoted, a purported long-time expert in internet filtering such as Carr should be profoundly, deeply embarrassed to have made such a pronouncement to a national newspaper.

If he really is a government adviser on matters related to the internet, he’s self-evidently the wrong man for the job.

Nevertheless, other newspapers picked up the quotes and the story and ran with it, and now Ed Vaizey, the UK’s minister for culture, communications and creative industries, is “taking it seriously”.

Vaizey is the minister most directly responsible for pretending to understand the domain name system. As a result, he has quite a bit of pull with Nominet, the .uk registry.

Because Vaizey for some reason believes Carr is to be taken seriously, Nominet, which already has an uncomfortably cozy relationship with the government, has decided to “review our approach to registrations”.

It’s going to launch “an independently-chaired policy review” next month, which will invite contributions from “stakeholders”.

The move is explicitly in response to “concerns” about its open-doors registration policy “raised by an internet safety commentator and subsequently reported in the media.”

Carr’s blog post, in other words.

Nominet — whose staff are not stupid — already knows that what Carr is asking for is pointless and unworkable. It said:

It is important to take into account that the majority of concerns related to illegality online are related to a website’s content – something that is not known at the point of registration of a domain name.

But the company is playing along anyway, allowing a badly informed blogger and a credulous politician to waste its and its community’s time with a policy review that will end in either nothing or censorship.

What makes the claims of Carr and the Sunday Times all the more extraordinary is that the example domain names put forward to prove their points are utterly stupid.

Carr published on his blog a screenshot of Go Daddy’s storefront informing him that the domain rapeher.co.uk is available for registration, and wrote:

www.rapeher.co.uk is a theoretical possibility, as are the other ones shown. However, I checked. Nominet did not dispute that I could have completed the sale and used that domain.

Why has it not occurred to Nominet to disallow names of that sort? Nominet needs to institute an urgent review of its naming policies

To be clear, rapeher.co.uk did not exist at the time Carr wrote his blog. He’s complaining about an unregistered domain name.

A look-up reveals that kill-all-jews.co.uk isn’t registered either. Does that mean Nominet has an anti-Semitic registration policy?

As a vegetarian, I’m shocked and appalled to discovered that vegetarians-smell-of-cabbage.co.uk is unregistered too. Something must be done!

Since Carr’s post was published and the Sunday Times and Daily Mail in turn reported its availability, five days ago, nobody has registered rapeher.co.uk, despite the potential traffic the publicity could garner.

Nobody is interested in rapeher.co.uk except John Carr, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail. Not even a domainer with a skewed moral compass.

And yet Go Daddy has took it upon itself, apparently in response to a call from the Sunday Times, to preemptively ban rapeher.co.uk, telling the newspaper:

We are withdrawing the name while we carry out a review. We have not done this before.

This is what you see if you try to buy rapeher.co.uk today:

Is that all it takes to get a domain name censored from the market-leading registrar? A call from a journalist?

If so, then I demand the immediate “withdrawal” of rapehim.co.uk, which is this morning available for registration.

Does Go Daddy not take male rape seriously? Is Go Daddy institutionally sexist? Is Go Daddy actively encouraging male rape?

These would apparently be legitimate questions, if I was a clueless government adviser or right-leaning tabloid hack under orders to stir the shit in Middle England.

Of the other two domains cited by the Sunday Times — it’s not clear if they were suggested by Carr or MetaCert or neither — one of them isn’t even a .co.uk domain name, it’s the fourth-level subdomain incestrape.neuken.co.uk.

There’s absolutely nothing Nominet, Go Daddy, or anyone else could do, at the point of sale, to stop that domain name being created. They don’t sell fourth-level registrations.

The page itself is a link farm, probably auto-generated, written in Dutch, containing a single 200×150-pixel pornographic image — one picture! — that does not overtly imply either incest or rape.

The links themselves all lead to .com or .nl web sites that, while certainly pornographic, do not appear on cursory review to contain any obviously illegal content.

The other domain cited by the Daily Mail is asian-rape.co.uk. Judging by searches on several Whois services, Google and Archive.org, it’s never been registered. Not ever. Not even after the Mail’s article was published.

It seems that the parasitic Daily Mail really, really doesn’t understand domain names and thought it wouldn’t make a difference if it added a hyphen to the domain that the Sunday Times originally reported, which was asianrape.co.uk.

I can report that asianrape.co.uk is in fact registered, but it’s been parked at Sedo for a long time and contains no pornographic content whatsoever, legal or otherwise.

It’s possible that these are just idiotic examples picked by a clueless reporter, and Carr did allude in his post to the existence of .uk “rape” domains that are registered, so I decided to go looking for them.

First, I undertook a series of “rape”-related Google searches that will probably be enough to get me arrested in a few years’ time, if the people apparently guiding policy right now get their way.

I couldn’t find any porn sites using .uk domain names containing the string “rape” in the first 200 results, no matter how tightly I refined my query.

So I domain-dipped for a while, testing out a couple dozen “rape”-suggestive .co.uk domains conjured up by my own diseased mind. All I found were unregistered names and parked pages.

I Googled up some rape-themed porn sites that use .com addresses — these appear to exist in abundance, though few appear to contain the offending string in the domain itself — and couldn’t find any that have bothered to even defensively register their matching .co.uk.

So I turned to Alexa’s list of the top one million most-popular domains. Parsing that (.csv), I counted 277 containing the string “rape”, only 32 of which (11%) could be loosely said to be using it in the sense of a sexual assault.

Whether those 32 sites contain legal or illegal pornographic content, I couldn’t say. I didn’t check. None of them were .uk addresses anyway.

Most of the non-rapey ones were about grapes.

I’m not going to pretend that my research was scientific, neither am I saying that there are no rape-themed .co.uk porn sites out there, I’m just saying that I tried for a few hours to find one and I couldn’t.

What I did find were dozens of legitimate uses of the string.

So if Nominet bans the word “rape” from domain name registrations under .uk — which is what Carr seems to want to happen — what happens to rapecrisis.org.uk?

Does the Post Office have to give up grapevine.co.uk, which it uses to help prevent crime? Does the eBay tools provider Terapeak have to drop its UK presence? Are “skyscrapers” too phallic now? Is the Donald Draper Fan Club doomed?

And what about the fine fellows at yorkshirerapeseedoil.co.uk or chilterncoldpressedrapeseedoil.co.uk?

If these examples don’t convince you that a policy of preemptive censorship would be damaging and futile, allow me to put the question in terms the Daily Mail might understand: why does Ed Vaizey hate farmers?