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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?