The future of Nominet

 

Every sovereign state has a national domain namespace on the internet. They are more properly called country code top-level domains or ccTLDs for short. ccTLDs are all two letters long and they appear to the right of the last dot in any email or web address. Ours is .uk. Each ccTLD has an agency which is recognised by IANA, effectively part of ICANN, as being the body authorised to make rules governing how it operates.  For the UK that is Nominet, a not for profit public interest organization.

An advert for Britain

The .uk namespace is sort of an advertisement for Britain. How it works, how it is perceived, is in a small but nonetheless significant way important to the overall success of UK Plc. Because it is so clearly linked to our country I imagine most Brits, insofar as anyone thinks or talks about these things at all, would hope that .uk is well thought of about the place and, pace recent well-publicised discoveries concerning Nominet’s naming policies, or lack of them, I think by and large it is. Nominet’s own polling certainly appears to suggest a higher level of trust among Brits for .uk addresses than .com ones although the extent to which people trusted either was not obvious.

I grant I have rarely actually heard the rules that govern the operation of the .uk namespace being debated in the queue at the checkout in my local Tesco but that is not the sole or acid test as to how well Nominet is doing its job. If things went badly wrong the Tesco queue could quickly get quite lively. That would soon be reflected in media coverage and Parliamentary and Governmental interventions. Thus I guess part of Nominet’s job, through consultative and other processes, is to interpret what the public interest is and formulate its policies accordingly.

Some suggestions

Here is my version of what I think the public would expect and what the public interest requires. I am sure all or most of these points are already reflected in Nominet’s standard Terms and Conditions:

1. That wherever .uk appears on an internet address the relevant rules governing its ownership have been set having regard to the highest ethical standards. 

2. That wherever .uk appears on the end of an internet address the entity which owns or, where this is different, operates the domain has a substantial and reliably verified connection to the United Kingdom.

In this regard I have changed my mind in relation to a view I expressed earlier. I can now see no justification for allowing people or entities with no connection to Britain or only having an exceptionally slight one to use .uk in their business name (which is sort of what a web or an email address is). Nominet’s polling shows that the British public as a whole take the same view.

It is not as if denying anyone the use of a .uk ending means their business can never get going. They can always use .com or something else. Equally I can see no reason why Nominet would want to allow non-UK entities to own or exploit a presumed connection with the UK which in reality does not exist.

Why would a business want a .uk ending if they had no real links to Britain? Doesn’t it inevitably at one level or other create a misrepresentation of some sort? Even if geeks knew you cannot take it for granted that a particular ccTLD denotes a connection with a given country the overwhelming majority of the internet using public around the world definitely do not.

3. It follows  that in all material respects affecting the site’s ownership it is ultimately governed by the laws of a UK jurisdiction, probably English.

4. That the people who own or manage the site are not crooks or, against the possibility they might be, their real world identities and locations have been reliably confirmed so they are within swift and easy reach of Inspector Knacker or the civil courts should circumstances require it.

5.  Domain names repugnant to public policy are not allowed.  In other words there is a clear prohibition on creating or using names which a reasonable person would understand to indicate that the site fosters or promotes activity which is unlawful in the UK. In addition, irrespective of its name, any entity owning or controlling a .uk domain that is found to be fostering, promoting or engaging in activity which is unlawful in the UK forfeits the right to continue to own or control that domain.

6.  Negligence or indifference towards site security is not acceptable on any .uk domain. All .uk web sites should be required to maintain a level of technical security which will to the greatest extent that is reasonably possible minimise the risk of that site being hijacked or otherwise misappropriated or misused to the likely detriment of third parties.

I am sure I haven’t covered everything but notice I have not referred to price i.e. the cost of buying a .uk domain name for the first time or renewing it. Clearly everyone would like prices to be as low as possible but, from a public policy perspective, you would expect the price to secure such revenues as are consistent with producing an income stream for Nominet to allow it to maintain an infrastructure capable of policing its rules and as best it can guaranteeing they are being observed.

How important is the price of buying or renewing a .uk domain name?

I mention the issue of price because in one of its recent consultation documents I was surprised to note that Nominet saw remaining competitive as a key challenge.

Competitive with what or with whom I wondered? There is only one UK and one .uk namespace. Where might a threat come from? How could cutting prices, maintaining low prices or holding to any particular price be, in and of itself, a strategic objective for a body whose primary or overriding role is to further the public interest? Or if there is some connection between price and Nominet’s fiduciary obligations could they please be explained? The language they have used sounds to me more like that of a company listed on the London Stock Exchange. It’s looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope.

My understanding is Nominet anyway has no direct influence over Registrars’ selling prices or the costs of renewals. They “simply” fix the wholesale price to Registrars and then leave it to them to sort out how they pass it on. Is there any discussion between Nominet and the Registrars about Nominet’s pricing policies? I don’t know.

Domain name prices are ridiculously low

Where is the evidence on price sensitivity anyway? I can see people might have hunches or feelings in their water about the importance of price but is that enough to elevate price above all other considerations? I don’t think so. I understand that back in the 20th Century Nominet did once up its wholesale price rather dramatically and there was a fairly immediate drop off in new registrations. It is assumed the two things were linked, and maybe they were, but back in the 20th Century all kinds of weird stuff used to happen. The internet has moved on considerably since then.

It is important to remember many of the guys who sell domain names do it largely as a hook to attract customers to their core business, which is web hosting and the provision of services that are ancillary to running a domain e.g. providing a Microsoft Exchange service for email. The income from the sale of domain names I suspect will be quite marginal to many companies and they probably believe that no amount of tinkering with the price could ever replace or compensate for the revenues they obtain in those other ways. Thus, my guess is if Registrars were exerting any sort of influence over Nominet’s wholesale pricing policy it will in the direction of keeping prices as low as possible whereas Nominet’s sole objective ought to be, as mentioned above

to secure such revenues as are consistent with producing an income stream for Nominet to allow it to maintain an infrastructure capable of policing its rules and as best it can guaranteeing they are being observed.

I have no idea where that sort of equilibrium price might be but even if the retail price of a .uk domain was doubled or possibly trebled I doubt that today it would have much impact on the volume of names sold or renewed. If there is any evidence to show the contrary it should be published. If price increases really posed any sort of credible threat to Nominet’s long term existence I am confident nobody will nevertheless insist it self-immolates. Moreover I find it hard to believe that a potential future Facebook or eBay failed to get off the virtual ground for want of, say, £25 at the beginning of its journey to world domination.

Could other factors be important in remaining competitive?

What if price is not a major determining factor in relation to the total sales or renewals of .uk domains? What if other things e.g. the identity and security checks referred to earlier mattered more?

We should resist the idea that we would be willing to compromise on or dilute those standards simply in order to bring more customers through the doors or keep those we already had.

Is ICANN the real villain of the piece?

If you read the Nominet CEO’s April, 2013 blog post it is obvious that there is some level of anxiety among the powers that be in Nominet about the longer term sustainability of the organization, but not from the prospect of another UK materialising in the mid-Atlantic. It arises both from the consequences of the recession i.e. there are fewer new business ventures or marketing campaigns getting going so there is less call for new web sites, but perhaps principally from ICANN’s recent decision to allow the creation of large numbers of new domain names.

I guess whatever is happening with our economy there must be a limit to year on year growth in domain name registrations and renewals but the new names thing is different, or so Nominet feels. Indeed Nominet itself entered the stakes by applying to be the Registry for .Wales and . Cymru. Could a proliferation of domains such as .Barnsley, .Wiltshire .Applesandpearscorblimeystrikealightguv really threaten the long-term viability of .uk? Hardly, although I can see how an apprehension that it might would trigger a severe case of headless chicken syndrome.

Nominet should Stay Calm and Carry On and anyway we cannot, probably for almost any reason, allow .uk to be hawked around as a cheapo or dodgy alternative implicitly promoted or sold as a low security, nudge nudge, no checks, no names, no pack drill, do what you like Squire, sort of space. 

The latest consultations

Which brings me finally to the latest round of consultations being carried out by Nominet. The children’s charities have submitted the following suggestions:

1. Any company or agency authorised to sell or provide any and all domain names that end with .uk should be obliged to verify the identity and payment details of the individual or entity that owns or, as appropriate, has day to day control of a working web site. This verification process should happen both at the point of first sale and at the point of renewal. Where  there is an extended period between renewals e.g. greater than one year, further or additional processes should be established which will confirm the given identity and payment details remain accurate.

2. At least annually Nominet should publish on its web site for public inspection an account which shows the level of accuracy it has been able to establish in the previous twelve months in relation to the above mentioned details in respect of all domains ending in .uk. First publication of this sort should take place no later than 31st December, 2014.

3. Nominet should develop an “acceptable names” policy which would require all companies or agencies authorised to sell, provide or use any and all domain names that end with .uk to adhere to it. The names of any already existing domains which are in breach of such a policy should be revoked.

4. Nominet should stipulate that no one anywhere in the supply chain can escape the acceptable names policy or other key policies simply by deploying a third or subsequent level domain name. If any address has .uk at the end people should know that certain standards will always apply across the piece.

5. Nominet should make a binding stipulation that any web site which ends with .uk, irrespective of where it is hosted, must at all times comply with the decision in R v Perrin. This means any web site ending in .uk that allows access to certain classes of pornographic material must ensure that, in relation to such material being accessed by any persons in the UK, an age verification system is in place which will prevent persons under the age of 18 from accessing the material and will prevent accidental or unintentional exposure to anyone not deliberately seeking it.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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