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Ad hoc malware police besiege net neutrality

When does crime fighting become censorship?

The Mission Creep

This style of self-service law enforcement can get even messier when it comes to registrars, who are being called on to police an increasing number of activities being carried out by their considerable base of customers.

A group called Scaminvestments.com, for instance, has gotten in the habit of exerting pressure on registrars to pull the plug on sites that promote ponzi schemes. They group has recently taken registrar eNom to task for failing to suspend at least 26 sites the group claims offer illegal investment opportunities. (Interestingly, the group says Estdomains, which has long been criticized as a haven for scammers, has been "nothing but cooperative with respect to suspending domain names for illegal activity.")

"It's not eNom's fault that these things happen," says Kristopher Paine, Scaminvestment.com's administrator. "But once they're notified, they should take action."

("eNom can and will disable a domain name registration upon proof of illegal activity, or upon issuance of a court order or other governmental decree or decision," a company spokeswoman says.)

Scaminvestments.com's well-intentioned campaign is an example of what is known as mission creep, in which the scope of a project or activity expands over time. While everyone agrees ponzi schemes are bad, they're also fraught with legal nuances that are likely to be lost on laymen. Do we really want people in registrar abuse departments making determinations based on complex securities law?

ICANN't

If registrars and network providers continue in the role of gatekeeper, there's no telling where it will lead. What was once limited to sites clearly punting malware and phishing scams has already expanded to include pharmacies and investment sites that are presumed to be illegal. It's not a stretch to imagine that sites offering BitTorrent downloads or material deemed to be obscene are next.

Contrary to claims by Scaminvestments.com, HostExploit.com and Knujon, another group that's taken the lead in pressuring registrars to suspend customers suspected of illegal activity, there are no requirements by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers governing the take down of malicious sites.

"ICANN's role technical coordinator," says ICANN spokesman Jason Keenan. "If someone is using a domain name for illegal activity, that's a matter to be dealt with by law enforcement agencies."

One possibility is for a broad base of participants to develop a set of procedures - similar to ICANN's uniform domain name dispute resolution policy - that would govern when and how abusive websites are taken down. While the domain name policy is by no means perfect, it's gone a long way to stemming the arbitrariness and unpredictability of resolving copyright disputes.

None of this is to suggest that cybercrime isn't a problem, or to disparage the hard work of security experts who donate considerable time and energy reining in some of the net's most nefarious elements. But it's time to recognize the current takedown system for what it is: a temporary and highly imperfect stopgap. If it's allowed to continue on its current course, we may throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. ®

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