Verisign Seeks Authority to Shut Down Websites Without Court Orders

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Verisign, the company that manages all .com and .net domain registrations, is seeking the authority to cancel the registrations of “non-legitimate abusive sites” when asked by governments—with or without a court order.

Law enforcement in the U.S. have recently begun using domain name seizures to shut down sites that allegedly host piracy or child pornography. Such seizures have been controversial. Although they require a court order, the targeted website owners are not notified before the seizure and don’t have an opportunity to present their side of the story to the judge. Additionally, thousands of sites have been mistakenly seized.

In a filing with ICANN, the nonprofit that oversees the Internet’s domain name system, Verisign said this week that it wants to set up a system that would “allow the denial, cancellation or transfer” of domain name registrations to comply not just with court orders, but also “laws, government rules or requirements, requests of law enforcement or other governmental quasi-governmental agency, or any dispute resolution process.”

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A literal reading of that language suggests that a simple request from law enforcement will suffice to take down a website. In the filing, Veirisign notes that domain owners “may be concerned about an improper takedown of a legitimate website” and says it will offer “a protest procedure to support restoring a domain name.”

The focus of Verisign’s filing are sites that maliciously host malware or that have been infected without their knowledge. However, there is no indication that the proposed domain takedown policy would be limited to such sites. The filing notes only that “The suspension service is offered to address non-legitimate sites that are abusing domain name services.”

Verisign did not respond to a request for comment.

“This proposal is either confused or deliberately misleading,” says Syracuse University School of Information Studies professor and ICANN expert Milton Mueller. A voluntary malware detection program may be a good idea, Mueller said. “On the other hand, the so-called anti-abuse policy embedded in the same document would give law enforcement a blanket authority to ask VeriSign to suspend or terminate a domain for any reason.”

Mueller worries that such authority would be ripe for abuse by law enforcement and that it would be used to pursue enforcement related to copyright, trademark, and WikiLeaks-style websites—not just malware.

Additionally, because the Internet is a global network, it’s possible that there could be international conflicts. For example, some of the content hosted on TIME.com may be illegal in countries with restrictions on speech, such as Saudi Arabia or China. As presently written, the proposed policy would seemingly allow law enforcement in those countries to request a takedown under their local laws.

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Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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