Verisign Seeks Power to Shut Down Websites Upon Request

Lyla Katz

DULLES, Va. — Verisign, the company that manages all .com and .net domain registrations, has requested to be given the power to cancel registrations of non-legitimate abusive sites when asked by law enforcement without a court order.

In a filing submitted through ICANN’s Registry Services Evaluation Process, the company said it wants to set up a system that would “allow the denial, cancellation or transfer” of domain name registrations that comply with court orders and "laws, government rules or requirements, requests of law enforcement or other governmental quasi-governmental agency, or any dispute resolution process."

Verisign stated that its policy would help the registrar align with requirements ICANN is placing on new generic top level domains,” ArsTechnica reported.

“All parts of the internet community are feeling the pressure to be more proactive in dealing with malicious activity,” Verisign said. “ICANN has recognized this and the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook requires new gTLDs to adopt a clear definition of rapid takedown or suspension systems that will be implemented.”

Verisign 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."

Verisign's filing focuses on 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.”

That service would enable VeriSign to scan all .com websites once per quarter for malware and then provide a free "informational only" security report to the registrar responsible for the domain, which would then be able to take re-mediation action. It would be a voluntary service.

Many civil rights activists and free speech groups such as the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and First Amendment advocates say Verisign’s request is unconstitutional.

“Adopting a policy whereby entire online communication venues can be censored at the ‘request’ of law enforcement would be an outrageous violation of the First Amendment,” adult industry attorney Larry Walters told XBIZ.

“While this policy might be acceptable in totalitarian regimes like Syria, the fact that a U.S. based registry is requesting approval of this power from ICANN is stunning.”

However, Walters said, this is also a sign of the new online environment that is developing where online freedom is slowly being replaced with “control” and “safety.” 

“We’ve already seen valuable domain names such as seized based on dubious claims premised on misdemeanor, state-level gambling violations,” he said.

“But in those cases, the registry took action based on a court order, not a mere request by some law enforcement agency.  Should this new policy be implemented, I suspect we’ll see some constitutional challenges, if any U.S. based sites are shut down based on mere allegations by law enforcement. “

Walters said that at a minimum, there should be a judicial proceeding where all parties are afforded due process, before any site is taken offline. 

“If the grounds are something like obscenity offenses, a final determination on the merits by a jury should be required.”