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Nominet suspends over 8,000 “criminal” domains as IP complaints double

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2016, Domain Policy

Police claims of intellectual property infringement led to the number of .uk domains suspended doubling in 2016, according to Nominet.

Statistics released today show that the .uk registry suspended 8,049 domains in the 12 months to October 31, compared to 3,889 in the year-ago period.

It’s an almost tenfold increase on 2014, when just 948 domains were taken down.

Nominet suspends domains when law enforcement agencies tell it the domains are being used in crime. No court order is required and Nominet rarely refuses a request.

Registrants can have the suspension lifted if they can show to law enforcement that the allegedly criminal behavior has stopped.

The vast majority of the complaints in 2016 again came from the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, which asked for and got 7,617 names suspended.

Just 13 suspensions were reversed, Nominet said. Most of these were due to sites selling so-called “legal highs” being slow to respond to a change in the law.

The controversial ban on “rape” domains resulted in just one suspension among the 2,407 domains automatically flagged for containing rapey substrings.

Nominet published the following infographic with more stats:

Nominet infographic

Rape ban results in just one .uk takedown, but piracy suspensions soar

Kevin Murphy, February 19, 2016, Domain Registries

Nominet’s controversial policy of suspending domain names that appear to condone rape resulted in one .uk domain being taken down last year.

That’s according to a summary of take-downs published by Nominet yesterday.

The report (pdf) reveals that 3,889 .uk names were taken down in the 12 months to October 31, 2015.

That’s up on the the 948 domains suspended in the six months to October 31, 2014.

The vast majority — 3,610 — were as a result of complaints from the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit. In the October 2014 period, that unit was responsible for 839 suspensions.

Unlike these types of suspensions, which deal with the allegedly illegal content of web sites, the “offensive names” ban deals purely with the words in the domain names.

Nominet’s systems automatically flagged 2,407 names as potentially in breach of the policy — most likely because they contained the string “rape” or similar — in the 12 months.

But only one of those was judged, upon human perusal, in breach.

In the previous 12 months period, 11 domains were suspended based on this policy, but nine of those had been registered prior to the implementation of the policy early in 2014.

The policy, which bans domains that “promote or incite serious sexual violence”, was put in place following an independent review by Lord Macdonald.

He was recruited for advice due to government pressure following a couple of lazy anti-porn articles, both based on questionable research by a single anti-porn campaigner, in the right-wing press.

Assuming it takes a Nominet employee five minutes to manually review a .uk domain for breach, it seems the company is paying for 200 person-hours per year, or 25 working days, to take down one or two domain names that probably wouldn’t have caused any actual harm anyway.

Great policy.

Eleven domains suspended under .uk anti-rape rules

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2014, Domain Registries

Nominet has suspended and permanently blocked 11 “rape” domain names in .uk since introducing a controversial policy earlier this year.

The company today disclosed that nine pre-existing domains were suspended immediately following the introduction of the rules in May. Another two have been blocked since then.

The policy calls for Nominet to ban any domain name that seems to “promote or incite serious sexual offences”.

Examples of such domains given by Lord MacDonald, who compiled the review that led to the policy, included rapeme.co.uk, rapemyteacher.co.uk and rapeporn.co.uk.

Nominet now automatically scans all new .uk registrations for keywords that may be a cause for concern. These are then manually reviewed to weed out the false positives, which could include for example domains that contain the word “grape” or “therapist”.

The false positive level is very high. According to a Nominet report (pdf) this week, 1,029 domains have been automatically flagged since May, only two of which were then suspended.

The policy was introduced following articles in some of the UK’s right-wing tabloids and pressure from government ministers.

Nominet also disclosed this week that 948 domains have been suspended for “criminal activity” in the last six months.

Under Nominet rules, such domains are suspended merely upon notification by the law enforcement agencies that the domain in question is suspected of harboring criminal activity. Unlike elsewhere in the world, no court order is required.

“Criminal activity” means intellectual property infringement in the vast majority of cases.

Of those 948 suspended names, 839 were suspended after complaints from the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit. Another 102 were yanked following notices from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. The remaining 7 complaints came from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.

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.