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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.