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“Stringent” new online censorship law could affect domain companies

Kevin Murphy, April 8, 2019, Domain Policy

Blame Zuck.

The UK government is planning to introduce what it calls “stringent” new laws to tackle abusive behavior online, and there’s a chance it could wind up capturing domain name registries and registrars in its net.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport this morning published what it calls the Online Harms White Paper, an initial 12-week consultation document that could lead to legislation being drafted at a later date.

The paper calls for the creation of a new independent regulator, charged with overseeing social media companies’ efforts to reduce the availability of content such as incitements to violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, “hate crime” and even “fake news”.

It basically would increase the amount of liability that companies have for user-generated content hosted on their services, even when that content is not necessarily illegal but is nevertheless considered “harmful”.

The regulator would have to create a code of conduct for companies the legislation covers to abide by.

When the code is breached, the regulator would have the authority to issue fines — possibly comparable to the 4% of profits that can be fined under GDPR — against not only the companies themselves but also their senior management.

The paper seems to most directly address ongoing tabloid scandals related to Facebook and its ilk, such as the suicide of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old who viewed material related to self-harm on Instagram before her death.

While it does not mention domain names once, the government clearly anticipates casting a wide net. The paper states:

The scope will include companies from a range of sectors, including social media companies, public discussion forums, retailers that allow users to review products online, along with non-profit organisations, file sharing sites and cloud hosting providers.

That’s a broad enough definition such that it could even cover blogs, including this one, that allow users to post comments.

The paper also discusses asking search engines to remove sites from their indexes, and compelling ISPs to block abusive sites as a “last resort” measure.

There’s a short mental hop from ISP blocking to domain name takedowns, in my view.

The paper also discusses steps the regulator could take to ensure companies with no UK legal presence are still covered by the rules.

While the paper, as I say, does not mention the domain name industry once, subsidiary services provided by registrars, such as hosting, could be directly affected.

There’s no guarantee that the paper will become a bill. There’s already a backlash from those who believe it constitutes unacceptable censorship, comparable to regimes such as in China.

There’s also no guarantee such a bill would eventually become law. The UK government is arguably currently the weakest it has ever been, with a propped-up minority in Parliament and many MPs in open revolt over Brexit.

With talk of an early general election incessant recently, it’s also possible the government may not last long enough to bring its plans to fruition.

Still, it’s probably something the domain industry, including ICANN, should probably keep an eye on.

The full 100-page white paper can be found here (pdf) and an executive summary can be read here.