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A new way to disconnect websites

Police managed to disconnect over 1,000 websites without going near a judge for a court order. How? Just by asking Nominet. Is this the future of anti-counterfeit action?07 Jan 2010


A text transcription follows.

This transcript is for anyone with a hearing impairment or who for any other reason cannot listen to the MP3 audio file.

The following is the text spoken by OUT-LAW journalist Matthew Magee.


Hello, happy new year and welcome to OUT-LAW Radio 2010, where we hope to keep you up to date with the latest news and the most fascinating features from the world of technology law.

My name is Matthew Magee, and this week we look behind the scenes at last month's dramatic swoop on counterfeiting websites and ask: does Nominet offer website owners enough protection?

But first, here are some of the top stories from OUT-LAW.COM, where you can read breaking technology law news throughout the week.

Body scanning can operate within privacy laws, says expert

and

Brothel-visiting celeb stays a secret after Moseley ruling.

A privacy regulator has said that technical tweaks and policy changes could ensure that whole body airport scanners do not violate people's privacy.

In the aftermath of a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit the Government has said that it will order airports to install scanners whose gaze can penetrate clothing to display the naked body underneath.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario in Canada, Ann Cavoukian, last year published a paper explaining how such technology could be used without violating travelers' privacy rights.  She said that if privacy protections are built into scanning systems from the start, then machines could comply with personal information security standards. She also said that the use of image altering technology and changes to security staff practices could result in privacy law-compliant scanning.

The Sun newspaper has refused to name a top football manager it said it caught leaving a brothel. Privacy law experts say that the case underlines the strictness with which courts interpret the right to privacy of famous people.

The Sun said that it confronted a Premier League football manager outside a Thai-style massage parlor and asked him if he knew that the premises operated as a brothel. He is said to have smiled and said 'yes'. The manager is married with children, The Sun said.

In the aftermath of last year's ruling that The News of the World revelations about an orgy attended by car racing boss Max Moseley breached his rights to privacy The Sun has opted not to publish the name of the manager.

Privacy law expert Rosemary Jay of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW said "There has been a gradual tightening of the screw." There has been a gradual stepping up of cases where the courts have said there is an area of private activity, where there is not a public interest in publication.

Jay said that newspapers now have to think more carefully about what justification they will use if they do name and shame public figures.

Those were some of the top stories from this week's OUT-LAW News.


As any brand owner knows, sometimes it can be a tough job clamping down on websites that do your company wrong. You might think that someone is selling fakes or taking advantage of your intellectual property, but if you go to that person's website host it can seem impossible to get the site taken down.

Rightly so, in many respects. Web hosting companies and ISPs take their duty to their customers very seriously. They can't take sites down at the merest whisper of scandal. They often demand that a complainant involve the courts.

This is all cumbersome, it takes time and often does not result in a website being taken down. But e-crime specialists at London's Metropolitan Police might have found another, cheaper, faster way to pull down not just one site, but tens, hundreds, even thousands of sites at a time.

In December it managed to get one thousand two hundred and nineteen websites that it believed were involved in counterfeiting taken off the internet? How? Well, not by going to web hosts but by going to Nominet, the organisation responsible for awarding domain names ending in dot UK.

The Police asked Nominet to untether the dot co dot UK web addresses from the websites lying behind them, effectively taking them offline. Nominet did so in an operation that was unprecedented in nature, scale and scope.

Eleanor Bradley is Director of Operations at Nominet. She says that the operation was unlike anything the body had handled before.

Eleanor Bradley: This is the first case that we had had a bulk request to pull some domain names in this way. Twelve hundred registrations was absolutely exceptional. Prior to that the kind of issues that we were dealing with related to maybe phishing activity and that sort of thing, so and then you were talking about handfuls of registrations and primarily in the last sort of six to twelve months.

The Police claimed that the sites involved were scams, either selling counterfeit goods or charging for goods that never arrived. They said that most were using false contact details and were in fact based in China or other parts of Asia.

A Police spokesman told the press at the time that as a result of the action Christmas shoppers stand a better chance of avoiding online fraud this festive season.

Bradley revealed what actually happened behind the scenes.

Eleanor Bradley: We were approached by the Police Central Crime Unit which is a division of the Met and asked to take down about twelve hundred dot UK domain names that were involved or under investigation for criminal activity. Primarily for counterfeiting goods or actually failing to supply goods that consumers had ordered and the Met asked us to actually take these domain names out of action. So we suspended them meaning that the websites were no longer available but that they could not be reregistered and used again. In this case it was a very clear instruction that said the sites were involved in criminal activity and that was key for us. There is always recourse and these sites were suspended and taken out of action, but if it had been the case that any of them were removed incorrectly then we can very quickly remove that lock on the site. But as I say on this occasion we felt comfortable that the instruction that we received together with the breaches of the terms of the contract were enough for us to act.

If this all seems relatively informal, then that's because it was. While webhosts will demand Court orders or warrants before disconnecting a site, Nominet did so merely at the request of the Police.

Nominet's Head of Legal Nick Wenban Smith said that the formal reason for disconnection was that the site owners had given incorrect contact details when registering their domain names.

Nick Wenban Smith: One of the terms of our contract, a fairly basic term, is that as a registrant it is very important that we know who has got domain name and where they are based. And if you provide false details or they are out of date for some reason then that enables us to have an investigation and suspend until we are happy that everything is well. Discussions with the Police, they feel it would cover a large number of domain names which we are very concerned about and say well whatever concerns, well they have not displayed their address so that people who, you know going to those sites to which the domain name links them. I don't know who they dealing with, the address is false and these are clear breaches of your contract. As it happens we have made test purchases and, you know, there are counterfeit goods being sold on these sites. Please can you do something?

Now anyone can get in touch with Nominet and complain about incorrect contact details listed for a site. But Wenban Smith admitted that the case of these twelve hundred domain names was treated differently to a standard complaint from the public because of Police claims about counterfeiting.

Nick Wenban Smith: If you have internal procedures actually for contract compliance, I mean they don't work so well with such a large number of domains in truth. So this was something we had to deal with specifically because of the large volume. But it was probably a truncated process compared to what we would normally do for a member of the public.

Matthew Magee: The formal basis of the disconnections was, was to do with the address issue but it was treated slightly differently because of the counterfeiting issue on top of it...

Nick Wenban Smith: Yes the counterfeiting and the volume and basically the breaches seemed to be serious breaches.

So did Nominet cut off access to these domains unfairly? Wenban Smith says not, and says that it must have the right to police its own contracts.

Nick Wenban Smith: So what you are saying that Nominet is, Nominet can't enforce its own contracts? It is effectively what you are saying. That does not make sense. Any complaints or queries, we had about 20 in fact back after the one thousand two hundred and nineteen suspensions. That seems to be overwhelming evidence that there were breaches of contract and you know you can look at the number of domains and the very few queries we had back as sort of a confirmation of that.

In the end just two of the one thousand two hundred and nineteen cancelled domain names were reinstated after the correction of false contact details, Wenban Smith said.

So should brand holders take heart? Can they now just phone Nominet every time they see a counterfeit goods site with a dot co dot uk address?

No, says Bradley. they should still go to the Police.

Eleanor Bradley: We in that case we would do exactly as I just said we would say, you know go to the Police Central Crime Unit and if they determine there was criminal activity going on and then we can certainly look at taking action.  Obviously the alternative that that brand holder may explore is the dispute resolution service as a pretty cost effective way of removing sites so that they can demonstrate that the registrations are being used in an abusive way.

So are Police-instigated mass cancellations the way of the future? Wenban Smith suspects not. The organised crime gangs that Police said were behind these sites will move on, he said.

Nick Wenban Smith: It is hard for me to say in truth. I mean I think it is true that organised crime is what we would call an earlier doctor of new technologies and so things change very quickly. But what you might tend to find is that they will have a go at some new opportunity and if they are thwarted they will only move on to something else. Although they may try again.


That's all we have time for this week, thanks for listening. Why not get in touch with OUT-LAW Radio? Do you know of a technology law story? We'd love to hear from you on radio@out-law.com. Make sure you tune in next week; for now, goodbye.