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UK police may be given domain name-suspension powers

UK police could be able to order the suspension of website domain names without first having to obtain a court order under new plans being considered by a domain name registry.05 Sep 2011

A group set up by Nominet, which is the internet registry for .uk domain names, said that a new "expedited process" should be created to allow law enforcement agencies to ask for domains to be suspended if they are associated with serious crime.

Currently Nominet's terms and conditions of domain name registration state that it may suspend domain names if registrants have broken its rules, including by violating others' intellectual property rights, or if it receives a "complete and valid court order which we or you (or both) must obey".

The Nominet group, which was set up last year and is headed by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, is now proposing to include new rules that could force the registry to suspend domains if asked to do so by the police, without the police requiring a court order.

"The issue group has agreed that Nominet should have an abuse policy that specifically addresses criminal activity in its registrant terms and conditions," a report (3-page / 136KB PDF) by Nominet's issue group on domain names used in connection with criminal activity said.

"The strong consensus of the issue group is that Nominet should not itself be expected to determine criminality in any case. However the policy should enable Nominet to act swiftly where it has received a properly authorised request from a UK public law enforcement agency to suspend a domain. This would be over and above the evaluation process that Nominet would conduct when in receipt of any request for suspension from any party," the report said.

The Nominet group said the streamlined process should only be open as a "last resort" and used only if it has first asked others, including asking registrars to remove domains and internet service providers (ISPs) to suspend users' accounts or if "it is the most viable option to prevent imminent or ongoing serious consumer harm".

The group said that suspension requests had to be sufficiently important before Nominet should have to act on them.

"It was the consensus of the group that such requests should meet the criteria of ‘serious consumer harm’ and would include crimes as defined under the Serious Crime Act 2007 such as fraud, physical harm, counterfeiting, the unlicensed distribution of controlled substances or medicines, as well as phishing and botnets," the Nominet group's report said.

"The issue group acknowledges that court orders are the preferred method by which suspensions of domain names for criminal activity should be made, but that in urgent cases this may not be possible or practical in order to prevent consumer harm. It therefore recommends that, before Nominet acts on a request, the policy requires law enforcement agencies to provide a declaration that the suspension is proportionate, necessary, and urgent and in accordance with this policy. Such requests should only be accepted from UK law enforcement agencies with which Nominet has a trusted relationship," the report said.

The new policy should be restricted so as to "exclude suspension where issues of freedom of expression are central aspects of the disputed issue," the Nominet group recommended. Registrants should have a right to appeal domain suspensions under the proposed new rules where the "appeal mechanism" respects their "rights under general principles of law," it said.

Plans to include new rules that would streamline the "civil or third party [suspension] requests" process were not approved, but may be discussed again in the future, the group said.

The Nominet group is meeting again on 21 September to discuss the proposals and is expected to make final recommendations to the Nominet Board in October.

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