Nominet takes down websites on police say-so. Where is the judicial protection?
For some time now UK Law Enforcement has sought the power to take down criminal websites more speedily (see my comment here: Should SOCA be allowed to request domain takedown without judicial oversight?). Looks like they succeeded.
Yesterday, the Met Police announced
Online shoppers are less likely to fall foul of internet fraudsters this Christmas after more than 2,000 fraudulent websites were suspended following action by the Met’s Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU).
Working closely with domain name registries and registrars, detectives from the unit have identified and instigated action against counterfeit and fraudulent sites which affect thousands of unassuming consumers and generate millions of pounds for the criminals behind them.
Nominet simultaneously announced
.uk domain names suspended to protect shoppers from online fraud
November 18 2011
The operation, co-ordinated by the Metropolitan Police Central e-Crime Unit, targeted websites selling counterfeit goods to unsuspecting consumers in the busy Christmas shopping period.
Following notification from the Police, Nominet worked with the relevant .uk registrars to suspend .uk domain names that were in breach of our terms and conditions.
This is a Good Thing. No-one will deny that the removal of criminal websites is anything but good. What concerns me, however, is not what has been said, but what has not been said. It would appear that the Police decided that the sites were engaged in criminal activity, and Nominet took them down for breach of T&Cs. Where is the scope for appeal in this process? Where is the judicial oversight?
I do not believe it is for the police to declare something is illegal. Where they suspect an illegality, they must pass details via the CPS to the courts, and it is the courts that decide the illegality or not.
So here’s the problem. The police want to be able to remove fraudulent sites rapidly. But to be able to do so they have to by-pass the courts. It is the ability to do this that is a very dangerous thing.
Consider this. I would like the UK to leave the EU. For the moment, this is acceptable to the authorities. But what if the situation deteriorates dramatically over the next few months? What if the government were to decide that anti-EU sentiment is particularly unhelpful?
So far we’ve had two elected leaders removed in order to make things easier for France and Germany. It is a much lesser thing to remove a few websites than to remove a few leaders. Now, with this precedent, the police could go to Nominet and say, Townsend’s blog is illegal – please shut it down. Nominet would then simply do so since if my site is engaged in illegal activity I am automatically in breach of the Nominet T&Cs (I’m probably OK for the moment since the blog is hosted on WordPress.com; but I shall be a bit exposed when I move it to ITsecurity.co.uk).
It is not necessarily the shutdown of these particular sites that is worrying; it is the precedent that is set. It means that it is increasingly easy for UK authorities to remove anything they just don’t like. It’s just another step deeper into the police state that used to be the country I love.