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Why Screening Sex Crime Terms in Web Addresses Won't Stop Sex Crimes

Another week, another attempt to clean up the UK's internet.
Image via Flickr/Nathanael Boehm

Another week, another perhaps well-intentioned yet ultimately pretty pointless attempt to clean up the UK’s internet. This time, however, David Cameron and his war on porn aren’t behind it.

The BBC reports that Nominet, the internet registry company that manages all .uk domain names, will now screen any newly registered .uk web addresses for terms “that signal or encourage serious sexual offences.” If a site seems dodgy, they’ll suspend or de-register it. Existing web addresses will also be screened.

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The move comes as a result of a report led by Ken Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions, which Nominet published yesterday. He starts with the point, “Nominet should remain an open registry,” but goes on to suggest the screening process as a way of eliminating domain names “that appear to signal sex crime content, or to amount in themselves to sex crimes.”

Now, the idea behind  this is something most all of us can get behind. Anything we can do to stop sex crime is, of course, a good thing. Additionally, Macdonald emphasises that domain names that are in bad taste but don’t suggest actual criminal content should still be allowed. “Nominet, which is a private company, should have no role in policing questions of taste or offensiveness on the Internet,” he wrote. The idea would not be to censor the internet, but to pick out potentially criminal sites and refer them to the police. Swear words and off-colour jokes should be fine.

And to give him credit, he at least understands that an automated system to pick out sex offence content wouldn’t work. “For example, many domain names containing the word ‘rape’ may offer counselling or advice services, or refer to agricultural seed. Equally, the word may be picked up in a term like ‘therapist’,” he explained.

It’s perhaps an obvious point, but one the opt-out porn filters rolled out by British ISPs at the end of last year failed to take on board. They ended up blocking sex education sites and online support groups.

Nominet hasn’t yet said which terms will be targeted or given details on how it will implement the changes, but Macdonald’s report pulls out some amusing instances of legitimate websites that could theoretically be tagged by an automated screening process. “Incest” occurs in the domain name of Prince Charles’ youth charity, The Prince’s Trust, and “rape” appears in the web address of a company that constructs bridge parapets.

Thankfully, according to the BBC's report, all flagged domains will be checked by a human to compensate for this overreaching, and reported to the police if they still seem suspicious. The majority won’t be. As an exercise, the report checked current .uk addresses against a list of seven terms potentially related to sex offences and found that, “Of 1089 such domains registered in the last year, 826 started with ‘grape’, ‘drape’, ‘scrape’ or ‘princest’ or contain ‘therapist,’ ‘draper,’ ‘therapeutic’ or ‘rapeseed.’” And even those that contained “rape” or similarly offensive words didn't necessarily seem actually criminal in nature.

This highlights the real problem with a system like this; its impact is simply so minimal that it will do little, if anything, to actually stop criminal activity. Only a handful of domains will be affected, and they will no doubt play a minuscule role in the actual problem of illegal sexual content on the web. It seems unlikely most people interested in unlawful content would use sites with such obviously incriminating names; and that's if they're using the clear net at all. Even if they don't have the imagination to look further than the most blatant web addresses, this change will only apply to .uk domains, so there’s plenty of online space left for them to explore.

That’s not to say I think websites that host sexual crime content shouldn’t be shut down; they absolutely should. It's good that Nominet is helping identify them. But in the greater scheme of things, it can't be considered a real step forward in cracking down on web-based sex offences. In its greatly limited scope, this new initiative, much like previous attempts to crack down on illegal web content, shows a misunderstanding of how most criminal activity on the web really happens and fails to tackle the matter in any meaningful way. It might clean up a handful of dodgy domains from the .uk registry, but in practice will be little more than an “image thing” for the UK's online presence.