Police propose Fort Knox Internet domains

Police proposals to prevent criminals from running shady websites will force anyone applying for a web address to follow security procedures similar to those used by banks.

The proposals will require Internet domain name registries to become strict in their collection and validation of names and addresses used by people registering websites. They will force a tricky high level debate at ICANN, the global body responsible for web addresses, where the cyber police lobby will come head to head with internet traditionalists, democracy campaigners and freedom of speech advocates who believe the police are challenging the founding principles of the web.

Paul Hoare, head of the e-crime division of the UK's Serious and Organised Crime Agency, said the proposals formerly introduced the idea that "mandatory minimum standards" should be imposed on domain name registries when they were accredited by ICANN.

"These requirements are similar to those demonstrated by online merchants and banks," said Hoare.

Officer, why the alarm?

Professor William H. Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said he opposed any plan that challenged people's choice to act anonymously on the Internet. The choice was was "absolutely critical" if the Internet was to remain a medium for democracy.

"Freedom of expression depends on the ability to be anonymous on occasion," he said, citing the case of democracy campaigners in Iran and Burma whose lives might depend on it.

Professor Dutton added that the police proposals would not work anyway. Determined criminals would still find ways of registering websites with false identities.

MuckDonald's filth farm

Police had forwarded the registration plan in the hope of reversing a losing battle they were fighting with cyber criminals.

Hoare said cyber criminals who found it "ridiculously easy" to register a website under a false name. One website had even been registered under the name and address: "Mucky McMuck, Muck Avenue, Muckland".

And so SOCA started lobbying ICANN. It joined the FBI in organising a consensus of the 24 police forces that sat on the Cyber Working Group of Interpol, the international police agency. They had concluded that it might be wiser to prevent dodgy websites from being erected in the first place than always to be hunting them down.

But police are sceptical of the internet governance regime, which operates through an open hierarchy of committees that scrutinises the ideas of experts who think they know how to improve the internet.

You lousy little...

Hoare was so sceptical of the internet governance process he issued ICANN with a veiled threat to pass the police proposals.

"Law Enforcement consider this to be litmus test of ICANN's commitment to work for the public good," he said in a keynote speech at the eCrime Congress in London on Tuesday.

But the proposals are also the first foray the police have made into the international, democratic system by which the Internet is managed.

Cyber military chiefs have also started asking whether they ought to stick their oar in for the sake of the protection of the national Internet infrastructure in the event of war. Though all say they applaud and support its facility for commerce, community, education and democracy, they are naturally suspicious of its founding principles.

ICANN president Rod Beckstrom - himself a former government cyber security chief - has encouraged the security lobby to get involved. But tempered their expectations with a speech at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies in Washington in January. The Internet had thrived, he said, because no single body had been able to control or define it.

The collaborative system of international committees by which the Internet is governed could test the patience of people who thought they had all the answers, but any new proposals would have a complex array of implications that had to be properly considered by numerous groups of stakeholders, not least the technical experts. Russia had to wait 11 years before its .rf domain passed muster.

...enigma

The implications for police were that there is no short-cut to taming the web. Hence their scepticism. ICANN had resisted calls for the internet to be brought under government control. The result had been a thriving internet that never stopped working, and commercial and societal benefits far in excess of its security risks.

The police have at least joined the community. They did so after finding their own voice in an international committee of policy wonks. It was the only way they could reach a consensus among police forces.

Then last week, two years since they went into consultation with an outlying ICANN committee that forms the first stage for any idea to improve the internet, the police proposals were at last officially sent to ICANN.

But the proposals didn't even get the full backing of the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee that first heard them. Some governments withheld their approval. The police merely won enough support for their ideas to get them passed into the next ring of fire at ICANN. Now they face the real test as they are scrutinised by hoards of internet experts who really call the shots - peer reviewed, if you like.