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Is the Defending Internet Freedom Act pro-crime?

The Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2015, introduced to the US Congress last month, contains a provision that could be interpreted as pro-pron, pro-piracy or even just pro-crime.

The act is designed to prevent the US giving up its oversight of ICANN/IANA unless certain quite strict conditions are met.

It’s a revised version of a bill that was introduced last year but didn’t make it through the legislative process.

Like the 2014 version, it says that the US cannot sever ties with ICANN until its bylaws have been amended in various ways, including:

ICANN is prohibited from engaging in activities unrelated to ICANN’s core mission or entering into an agreement or modifying an existing agreement to impose on a registrar or registry with which ICANN conducts business any condition (such as a condition relating to the regulation of content) that is unrelated to ICANN’s core mission.

It’s the “regulation of content” bit that caught my eye.

Presumably written as a fluffy, non-controversial protection against censorship, it ignores where the real content regulation conversations are happening within the ICANN community.

It’s a constant mantra of ICANN that is “doesn’t regulate content”, but the veracity of that assertion has been chipped away relentlessly over the last several years by law enforcement, governments and intellectual property interests.

Today, ICANN’s contracts are resplendent with examples of what could be argued is content regulation.

Take .sucks, for a timely example. Its Registry Agreement with ICANN contains provisions banning pornography, cyber-bulling and parked pages.

That’s three specific types of content that must not be allowed in any web site using a .sucks domain.

It’s one of the Public Interest Commitments that were voluntarily put forward by .sucks registry Vox Populi, but they’re still enforceable contract provisions.

Using a dispute resolution process (PICDRP), ICANN would be able to levy fines against Vox Pop, or terminate its contract entirely, if it repeatedly allows porn in .sucks web sites.

This sounds quite a lot like content regulation to me.

It’s not just .sucks, of course. Other registries have PICs that regulate the content of their gTLDs.

And every contracted new gTLD registry operator has to agree to this PIC:

Registry Operator will include a provision in its Registry-Registrar Agreement that requires Registrars to include in their Registration Agreements a provision prohibiting Registered Name Holders from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law, and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities including suspension of the domain name.

It’s convoluted, but it basically indirectly forces (via registrars) new gTLD domain registrants to, for example, agree to not infringe copyright.

The PIC is paired with a provision (3.18) of the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement that requires all registrars to investigate and “take necessary and appropriate actions” in response to abuse reports within 24 hours of receipt.

Section 3.18 is essentially the RAA mechanism through which ICANN can enforce the PIC from the RA.

This is currently one of the most divisive issues in the ICANN community, as we witnessed during the recent Congressional hearings into ICANN oversight.

On the one hand, big copyright owners and online pharmacy watchdogs want ICANN to act much more ruthlessly against registrars that fail to immediately take down sites that they have identified as abusive.

On the other hand, some registrars say that they should not have to engage in regulating what content their customers publish, at least without court orders, in areas that can sometimes be amorphously grey and fuzzy.

Steve Metalitz, from a trade group that represents the movie and music industies at ICANN, told the US Congress that registrars are dismissing piracy reports without investigating them, and that “unless registrars comply in good faith, and ICANN undertakes meaningful and substantive action against those who will not, these provisions will simply languish as empty words”.

John Horton from pharmacy watchdog used the same Congressional hearing to out several registrars he said were refusing to comply with 3.18.

One Canadian registrar named in Horton’s testimony told DI that every complaint it has received from LegitScript has been about a web site that is perfectly legal in Canada.

In at least some cases, it seems that those pushing for ICANN to more stringently regulate content may have “internet freedom” as the least of their concerns.

If the Defending Internet Freedom Act becomes law in the US, perhaps it could prove a boon to registries and registrars upset with constant meddling from rights owners and others.

On the other hand, perhaps it could also prove a boon for those operating outside the law.

KickAssTorrents continues world tour after latest ccTLD ban

Kevin Murphy, April 24, 2015, Domain Registries

One of the most popular sites for finding copyright-infringing BitTorrent files is reportedly heading to Costa Rica after its latest choice of ccTLD banned it.

KickAssTorrents, which is about the 100th most-popular site on the web, had moved to kickasstorrents.im yesterday, but found its new domain deleted by the Isle of Man registry in a matter of hours.

The site’s owners have TorrentFreak said they now plan to move to kat.cr, in the Costa Rican ccTLD.

KAT has previously been hosted in Somalia’s .so, Tonga’s .to and the Philippines’ .ph.

Here in the UK, major ISPs are obliged to block access to the site after a court ruling.

Cops can’t block domain transfers without court order, NAF rules

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2014, Domain Registrars

Law enforcement and IP owners were dealt a setback last week when the National Arbitration Forum ruled that they cannot block domain transfers unless they have a court order.

The ruling could make it more difficult for registrars to acquiesce to requests from police trying to shut down piracy sites, as they might technically be in breach of their ICANN contracts.

NAF panelist Bruce Meyerson made the call in a Transfer Dispute Resolution Policy ruling after a complaint filed by EasyDNS against Directi (PublicDomainRegistry.com).

You’re probably asking right about now: “The what policy?”

I had to look it up, too.

TDRP, it turns out, has been part of the ICANN rulebook since the Inter-Registrar Transfer Policy was adopted in 2004.

It’s designed for disputes where one registrar refuses to transfer a domain to another. As part of the IRTP, it’s a binding part of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

It seems to have been rarely used in full over the last decade, possibly because the first point of complaint is the registry for the TLD in question, with only appeals going to a professional arbitrator.

Only NAF and the Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre are approved to handle such cases, and their respective records show that only one TDRP appeal has previously filed, and that was in 2013.

In the latest case, Directi had refused to allow the transfer of three domains to EasyDNS after receiving a suspension request from the Intellectual Property Crime Unit of the City of London Police.

The IPCU had sent suspension requests, targeting music download sites “suspected” of criminal activity, to several registrars.

The three sites — maxalbums.com, emp3world.com, and full-albums.net — are all primarily concerned with hosting links to pirated music while trying to install as much adware as possible on visitors’ PCs.

The registrants of the names had tried to move from India-based Directi to Canada-based EasyDNS, but found the transfers denied by Directi.

EasyDNS, which I think it’s fair to say is becoming something of an activist when it come to this kind of thing, filed the TDRP first with Verisign then appealed its “No Decision” ruling to NAF.

NAF’s Meyerson delivered a blunt, if reluctant-sounding, win to EasyDNS:

Although there are compelling reasons why the request from a recognized law enforcement agency such as the City of London Police should be honored, the Transfer Policy is unambiguous in requiring a court order before a Registrar of Record may deny a request to transfer a domain name… The term “court order” is unambiguous and cannot be interpreted to be the equivalent of suspicion of wrong doing by a policy agency.

To permit a registrar of record to withhold the transfer of a domain based on the suspicion of a law enforcement agency, without the intervention of a judicial body, opens the possibility for abuse by agencies far less reputable than the City of London Police.

That’s a pretty unambiguous statement, as far as ICANN policy is concerned: no court order, no transfer block.

It’s probably not going to stop British cops trying to have domains suspended based on suspicion alone — the Metropolitan Police has a track record of getting Nominet to suspend thousands of .uk domains in this way — but it will give registrars an excuse to decline such requests when they receive them, if they want the hassle.

NTIA fights Big Content’s corner, tells ALL new gTLD applicants to submit PICs

Kevin Murphy, February 26, 2013, Domain Policy

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said today that all new gTLD applicants, even those that have not already been hit by government warnings, should submit Public Interest Commitments to ICANN.

In a rare comment sent to an ICANN public forum today, the NTIA suggested that applicants should use the process to help combat counterfeiting and piracy.

The agency, the part of the US Department of Commerce that oversees ICANN and participates in its Governmental Advisory Committee, said (emphasis in original):

NTIA encourages all applicants for new gTLDs to take advantage of this opportunity to address the concerns expressed by the GAC in its Toronto Communique, the individual early warnings issued by GAC members, and the ICANN public comment process on new gTLDs, as appropriate.

PICs were introduced by ICANN earlier this month as a way for applicants to voluntarily add binding commitments — for example, a promise to restrict their gTLD to a certain user base — to their registry contracts.

The idea is to let applicants craft and agree to stick to special terms they think will help them avoid receiving objections from the GAC, GAC members and others.

NTIA said that applicants should pay special attention in their PICs to helping out the “creative sector”.

Specifically, this would entail “ensuring that WHOIS data is verified, authentic and publicly accessible”.

They should also “consider providing an enforceable guaranty that the domain name will only be used for licensed and legitimate activities”, NTIA said, adding:

NTIA believes that these new tools may help in the fight against online counterfeiting and piracy and is particularly interested in seeing applicants commit to these or similar safeguards.

The PICs idea isn’t going down too well in the applicant community, judging by other submissions this week.

The Registries Stakeholder Group of ICANN, for example, says its members are feeling almost “blackmailed” into submitting PICs, saying the timing is “completely unreasonable”.

As DI noted when PICs was first announced, applicants have been given until just March 5 to submit their commitments, raising serious questions about the timetable for objections and GAC advice.

The RySG has even convened a conference call for March 4 to discuss the proposal, which it says “contains so many serious and fundamental flaws that it should be withdrawn in
its entirety”.

Big Content issues gTLD lock-down demands

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2012, Domain Policy

Twenty members of the movie, music and games businesses have asked ICANN to impose strict anti-piracy rules on new top-level domains related to their industries.

In a position statement, “New gTLDs Targeting Creative Sectors: Enhanced Safeguards”, the groups say that such gTLDs are “fraught with serious risks” and should be controlled more rigorously than other gTLDs.

“If new gTLDs targeted to these sectors – e.g., .music, .movies, .games – are launched without adequate safeguards, they could become havens for continued and increased criminal and illegal activity,” the statement says.

It goes on to make seven demands for regulations covering Whois accuracy, enforced anti-piracy policies, and private requests for domain name take-downs.

The group also says that the content industries should be guaranteed “a seat at the table” when these new gTLD registries make their policies.

The statement is directed to ICANN, but it also appears to address the Governmental Advisory Committee, which has powers to object to new gTLD applications:

In evaluating applications for such content-focused gTLDs, ICANN must require registry operators (and the registrars with whom they contract) to implement enhanced safeguards to reduce these serious risks, while maximizing the potential benefits of such new domains.

Governments should use similar criteria in the exercise of their capability to issue Early Warnings, under the ICANN-approved process, with regard to new gTLD applications that are problematic from a public policy or security perspective.

The statement was sent to ICANN by the Coalition for Online Accountability, which counts the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and Disney among its members.

It was separately signed by the many of the same groups that are supporting Far Further’s .music application, including the American Association for Independent Music and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.