The Serious Organised Crime Agency has asked Nominet, which runs the .uk namespace, to formulate a policy on the suspension of domain names (effectively closing sites) when law enforcement agencies advise them that sites are being used for criminal purposes. The option under consideration is to incorporate new terms in the contracts between Nominet and other parties. Details of the Nominet discussion, and information on how to submit views, are here:
Sometimes, it may be appropriate to close sites at the request of law enforcers. But there is a huge danger that this would develop into a power of censorship of extreme social, political or religious views. The police must never, ever, be given such a power. Even the courts' powers in this area should be either zero, or very very limited.
Here is the comment that I sent to Nominet. I encourage all friends of freedom to send in their views, too.
I write to comment on this proposal.
It is sensible to have a clear policy on this topic. But it is essential to distinguish between four sorts of site, to which law enforcement agencies might object.
First, there are scam sites that imitate banks and shops, in order to steal account details or take money without delivering the goods. Here, there may be a case for Nominet to act on police advice, without waiting for a court case, although Nominet should certainly look at the site to determine whether it really fits into that category before acting, and I would question whether they really could not get a court order for the specific purpose of closing the site first.
Second, there are sites that improperly make copyright material available, or in some other way breach intellectual property law, or that make things like child porn available. I suggest that there will always be time for the police to seek a court order to close sites like these. That may delay closure by a few hours, which will cause further harm. But the harm done by allowing the police to get sites closed without going via the courts would be greater.
Third, there are sites that are being used to facilitate terrorism or other violent crime, by being used to send messages between conspirators. (I assume that discussion fora sometimes get used like this.) Here, there may be a case for urgent suspension, but probably only for a few hours while the police arrest the conspirators. Suspension long before arrest is unlikely because that would tip off the conspirators.
Fourth, there are sites that express extreme political, social or religious views, or that give general advice (as for example www.fitwatch.org.uk , which was recently closed down at the request of the police, and soon afterwards reappeared).
It would be totally unacceptable for Nominet ever to close down such a site at the request of law enforcers, without a court order. This is so, however extreme the views expressed.
If law enforcers could close sites like this, it would hand them a huge power of censorship. Of course they would promise not to abuse it, but future law enforcers might well abuse it. The power would also lead to self-censorship, as people moderated their comments for fear of provoking the authorities into asking Nominet to act.
So as far as this fourth category goes, the only acceptable policy for Nominet to have would be that it would always reject requests that were not in the form of court orders.