Police to get major new powers to seize domains

Police could soon have the power to seize any domain associated with criminal activity, under new proposals published today by UK domain registrar Nominet.

At present, Nominet has no clear legal obligation to ensure that .uk domains are not used for criminal activities. That situation may soon change, if proposals from the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) are accepted.

SOCA wants Nominet to change its registration terms and conditions, giving the registrar the power to suspend domains if it has "reasonable grounds to believe they are being used to commit a crime".

And Nominet gives us an example of what those "reasonable grounds" might consist of - "a request from an identified UK Law Enforcement Agency".

Such a move would mark a massive extension of the authorities' powers to clamp down on illegal web sites - and possibly just those that the powers that be deem to be a thorn in their side.

Two weeks ago, Fitwatch, a site dedicated to campaigning against what it sees as heavy-handed practices by police surveillance units, was taken down by its UK-based web hosting company, JustHost, after a formal request by the Metropolitan Police.

The site was accused of publishing guidance to students involved in the recent violent Millbank protests to escape detection by the police.

But in a matter of days Fitwatch was back up and laughing in the face of the law, with a heap of extra publicity under its belt. The site is now hosted in the United States, where its hosting company is beyond the jurisdiction of UK police.

With no specific powers to seize the site's domain name - the memorable address ending in .co.uk that is used by servers on the internet to point browsers in the direction of a specific server's numeric IP address, Fitwatch could simply set up on the other side of the Atlantic and point the same domain name towards their new servers instead.

SOCA's new proposals, if accepted, would put an end to that, giving Nominet the power to grab back a name at the police's request - and effectively increasing the powers of censorship wielded by the UK's law enforcement agencies.

With its domain name suspended, the only way for visitors to find a rogue site would be to type in its lengthy (and decidedly less memorable) numeric IP address.

Unsurprisingly, the issue is a hot potato - but it won't be the first time Nominet has involved itself in controversial name-grabbing. In December 2009, Nominet suspended over 1,200 domain names at the request of the Police Central eCrime Unit.

Back then, Nominet used the legal fig leaf that these sites had provided the registrar with false information in their registrations. If the new proposals are passed, they won't have to.

If you're concerned about the move, and want to express your opinion, email policy@nominet.org.uk, and include the title, "Dealing with domain names used in connection with criminal activity" in the subject line of your message.