Friday 26 November 2010

Internet censorship

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.

Dear Sirs

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 , 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.

Kind regards

Richard Baron


  1. I think therefore I am not27 November 2010 at 14:48

    well said Richard

  2. Thank you for this balanced and sensible post regarding the worrying possibility of censorship disguised as law enforcement. In my own field of writing, I would fear that "equality" legislation could be invoked to suppress comment. I expect that many others of widely differing political and religious views would have similar worries.

  3. I disagree. The powers requested are specifcally to be used with .uk registered websites in connection with any activity that would constitute an offence under UK criminal law. This is a power that already exists for sites with .org and .biz. This has nothing to do with gaggng legitimate extreme views, whether political, religious or whatever, so long as they do not break the law. And if a site were to be suspended inappropriately, the law would provide redress. And we are only talking about suspension, pending investigation.
    Most of us want the web to be a safe place, rather than a sort of latter day Wild West. If the police discover a credit card fraud they do not let the fraudsters carry on with their fraudukent activity pending their court case. Why should the internet be any different? Yes, a court order would be great, but what about the interim period between discovery and granting a court order. Yes, this is messy, but real life is messy.

    Aren’t we indulging in persecution complex here?

  4. Hello Simian,

    My problem with the proposal is that it is not the police's job to determine whether a law has been broken. That is the courts' business.

    The police can of course act to block the commission of a crime, pending court action, and that is the sort of category into which action to block credit card fraud would fall. And as I agree under the first group of sites that I discuss, there is a case for police action before a court hearing.

    The second and third categories may also justify immediate action. However, for the second category, I do not see why emergency court orders could not be obtained quickly enough to justify making the police wait until they can get an order.

    My real worry is the fourth category. You refer to legitimate extreme views. I do not want to see legitimacy imposed as a condition of expression of those views. There may be a case for imposing that condition when someone is shouting out their views in the street, with a view to provoking disorder then and there. But the Internet is not like that. We mostly view websites at home, then reflect on what to do about what we have read.

    There are two thoughts that I have on this. I think that either of them is sufficient to sustain an argument that the police should not have any power of suspension of addresses on the ground that a website violates laws that restrict the expression of extreme views, or that restrict hate speech.

    The first thought is that such laws should not apply when people are not shouting out their views in the street. I do not think that governments ever had any business interfering in what we say, or read. The Internet has taken away their practical power to regulate our speech and our reading. We must not let them get that power back. In this respect, I think it is wonderful that the Internet is the Wild West.

    You may well disagree with that thought, and think that there should be some regulation of the expression of views. If so, please consider my second thought. This is that free speech matters, and that the police should not act as school prefects, regulating it. If there is to be regulation, it must be done through the courts, in open court hearings at which both parties are represented. These court hearings should be open to being reported in the press, so that we can all monitor the degree of censorship under which we live.

    I regard police interference as a real risk. Not only was taken down, without a hearing at which its authors could put their case. Videos of Koran-burnings have been taken down at the request of the police (eg the girl in Sandwell a little while ago). And a couple of years ago a shopkeeper was told not to amuse his customers with Christmas leaflets that contained jokes which might offend people (see my post on this blog, 19 December 2008). The police clearly have an appetite to regulate what we can see, without going via the courts. We must deny them any opportunity to satisfy that appetite.

  5. I agree with Richard Baron and Fr. Finigan. I do not know Mr Baron but from his writings that I read he does not strike me at all as being someone Simian could put into the paranoic class, and neither would Fr Finigan fit into it! I know that some perfectly legitimate Catholic and other Christian sites have been disabled by hackers and that is a serious crime to me. We do not hack into anyone's sites. We express concern at the contents of some and we have every right to do that. Marcella