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Nominet fails to pin down its net cop role

'Light regulation is good', says ministerial video head

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.uk Policy Forum Nominet, the .uk domain name manager, yesterday held its inaugural .uk Policy Forum, a talking shop designed to give stakeholders a chance to voice their opinions about internet governance.

The day-long event in London's West End tackled, in a very roundabout way, Nominet's role in taking down websites believed to be engaged in intellectual property infringement and other crimes.

Over the last year or so, law enforcement in the UK and US have started to zero in on top-level domain name registries – such as VeriSign in the US for .com and Nominet for .uk – as a useful choke-point that can be squeezed to shut down criminal activity online.

Nominet has been criticised for turning off thousands of domains that police had identified as selling counterfeit goods, without court oversight.

In response to these new realities, the organisation recently launched, at the request of the Serious Organised Crime Agency a cross-stakeholder policy development committee designed to normalise (and, arguably, legitimise) the process for seizing domains used by crooks.

Yesterday's event, subtitled "Protection & Trust", heard from lawyers, advocacy groups, journalists, law enforcement and government, and covered topics from porn-filtering by ISPs to balancing free speech rights against the needs of law enforcement in an increasingly complex international environment.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, the minister most responsible for overseeing Nominet, spoke via a recorded video. He said that the government prefers a light regulatory touch, but warned that industry needed to act responsibly.

The government, as always, is under pressure to crack down on copyright theft and other forms of IP infringement – the controversial Digital Economy Act gave Big Copyright new powers to track down filesharers – but Vaizey focused more on ongoing calls to step up porn-filtering measures.

"I don't favour regulation, I don't think regulation is the answer here," Vaizey said. "A lightly regulated internet is what has caused the explosion of the internet. A lightly regulated internet is good for business, good for the economy, good for all of us. But with these freedoms do come real responsibilities... There'll always be pressure to regulate more to protect the young and protect the vulnerable."*

Every attendee we spoke to yesterday called the event a success, an unprecedented venue to air views about the wider internet governance debate. A similarly positive sentiment was recorded on Twitter (#nominetpf), but this reporter was surprised by the lack of discussion about Nominet's actual powers.

As the .uk registry, Nominet has the ability, if not necessarily the authority, to unilaterally remove any .uk domain name from the internet. Whether yesterday's debate focused on security, anti-pornography measures, copyright enforcement, or freedom of speech, the exercise of this power over internet addresses was arguably the only real, practical, underlying issue.

Yet Nominet itself barely merited a mention. The organisation sometimes felt the like the elephant in the room at its own conference. Its brand was on every PowerPoint slide, but it was not until the final minutes of the very last session that any panelist started to talk in any depth about its policies. Even then, they were hurried on by moderator Sarah Montague in the interests of timing.

But perhaps that was not the point. Nominet has had a problematic few years, in which it was accused of not acting in the public's best interests. A recent sweep of constitutional changes was made to address that perception, and yesterday's forum was one of the most noticeable ways the organisation has publicly engaged with stakeholders since its reform.

Nominet CEO Lesley Cowley said the forum was designed to identify the issues currently under discussion in the UK internet community, in order to better reflect public feeling in its own policy work. The views expressed yesterday will be synthesised into a document that will be published in due course, she said. ®

*Vaizey could not attend in person Tuesday morning. Reportedly, he was at reception at the Cannes Film Festival in France on Monday evening, where he was challenged on the government's decision to shut down the UK Film Council. Irony? We think so.

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