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Why Nominet disconnected 1,000 sites with no court oversight

Cherchez les cops

The body responsible for the .uk internet addresses disconnected over 1,200 websites without any oversight from a court. The much-publicised action last month was based only on police assertions about criminal activity on the sites.

Two Nominet executives have told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio that it severed the connection between 1,219 domain names and the sites that lay behind them without the kind of court order that web hosting companies would usually demand.

The dramatic action was unprecedented and attracted publicity last month, but some website owners may be surprised to learn that Nominet was prepared to disconnect so many sites on the evidence of police claims alone.

"We were approached by the Police Central E-Crime Unit, which is a division of The Met, and asked to take down about 1,200 .uk domain names that were involved or under investigation for criminal activity," said Eleanor Bradley, Nominet's head of operations. "The Met asked us to take these domain names out of action so we suspended them, meaning that the websites were no longer available but that they couldn't be re-registered and used again."

Hosting companies will usually refuse requests, even by police forces, to take down websites without a court order demanding that they do so.

Nominet legal head Nick Wenban-Smith told OUT-LAW Radio that it acted because there had been a breach of the contract agreed by the people behind the websites. They had given false contact details, he said.

"If you provide false details or they are out of date for some reason then that enables us to have an investigation and suspend until we're happy that everything is well," he said. "People who are going to those sites to which the domain name links them don't know who they're dealing with, the address is false."

The police also told Nominet about the massive organised counterfeiting operation it believed was being conducted through the sites.

Though the formal reason for suspension was the address-related contractual breach, Wenban-Smith admitted that the large number of sites involved and the counterfeiting allegations did lead Nominet to treat this case differently to others.

"It was probably a truncated process compared to what we would normally do for a member of the public [because of] the counterfeiting and the volume and the breaches seemed to be serious breaches," he said.

Wenban-Smith defended Nominet's actions by saying that it had to be able to enforce the contracts that it agrees with people registering domain names. He also said that the fact that people behind just 20 of the 1,219 domain names affected complained and only two domain names were reinstated were evidence the action was justified.

"There did seem to be overwhelming evidence that there were breaches of contract. You can look at the number of domains and the very few queries we had back as confirmation of that," he said.

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