What’s in a name? Nominet, which handles the registry of .uk Internet domains, has bowed to Government pressure and agreed to begin the screening of website domain names so that any which “appear to signal … criminal content … or encourage serious sexual offences” can be blocked.
The organisation, which last year appeared to moot the similarly questionable and likely to be unworkable idea of banning swearing and bad language in website names (here), had previously voiced opposition to the idea of what effectively amounts to judging website content solely by its name.
Never the less Nominet has decided to go ahead with the changes, which were first proposed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Ken Macdonald QC, last year (here). This is despite claiming, in the very same announcement, that it “will play no role in policing website content” (except for not allowing the website to have its domain of course.. ehumm).
The changes are in line with Nominet’s aim to run both an open and responsible registry. The targeted move aims to provide an effective way of tackling the isolated instances of domain names used to promote serious sexual offences, while not preventing entirely legitimate registrations or imposing disproportionate and cumbersome restrictions on over one million new registrations each year.
• 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.
• Nominet will play no role in policing website content. If domain names otherwise signal criminal content and they are brought to Nominet’s attention, it will refer these cases to the police for further action, in keeping with our current policy.
• Nominet will amend its terms and conditions to make it clear that registration of a domain name that appears to signal a serious sexual offence will constitute a breach of our terms of business.
• We will also make it clear that use of a .uk domain name for criminal purposes is not permitted and will be suspended or de-registered.
As usual the problem with such approaches is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. For example, residents of Cockfoster in Barnett (London) might now find it more difficult to register a UK domain for their area. Nearby Cock Pond might also experience similar troubles and perhaps Mr Dick Whittington would disapprove.
Names are not the same as words but names can also very easily be misrepresented or interpreted as words, which is a more complex way of saying that automated scanning systems can easily see abusive terms in names even when none actually exist.
Adrian Kennard, MD of ISP Andrews & Arnold (AAISP), said:
“I think it is very bad for Nominet to have taken this first huge step to vetoing domain name registrations, especially as the report even concludes that Nominet should have no role in bad taste of offensiveness.
But the other problem with this step is the pointlessness and ineffectiveness of it. The report itself states, for example, that in 2013 Nominet checked domains for key words used by the IWF, and as a result reported tens of thousands of domains to IWF for checking, all of which were false positives. Not one was, in fact, related to child sex abuse.
The report also highlights some bad domain registrations, including ones like pedophile.co.uk, which appears to be one of these speculatively registered domains linking to a generic advert based search for porn sites (legit porn sites, not child sex abuse sites). So, whilst in bad taste, not actually any illegal usage in any way.”
Never the less Nominet’s board has “unanimously agreed” to implement the new system, which will also be applied to existing registrations (registrants of affected domains have apparently been notified of the changes).
However Lesley Cowley, CEO of Nominet, does stress that they’re “only talking about a handful of domain names” and this suggests that the registry is at least taking a careful approach to implementation. But will that approach last or are we going to see a situation where new domains are being unfairly blocked due to misunderstandings.