Motion Picture Ass. of America to guard online henhouse

20th Century foxes sign up second internet registry co.

The Motion Picture Ass. of America will be given a direct line to kill domain names that it says contain pirated information.

Under an agreement signed [PDF] with Radix Registry, the MPAA will be a "trusted notifier" across the whole range of Radix registries that include .website, .tech, .online, .space and .host.

If the MPAA finds a domain name that it believes is being used "for the purpose of referring large-scale pirate websites" it has a direct contact with the registry operator that may then "put the infringing site on hold or suspend it." In other words, kill the website at the DNS level.

While the MPAA and Radix are keen to point out that there are "strict standards" covering any referrals, critics are concerned about the potential for it to act as a "slippery slope".

When the MPAA signed a similar agreement another registry, Donuts, in February, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a post in which it argued that "the companies and organizations that run the Internet’s domain name system shouldn’t be in the business of policing the contents of websites, or enforcing laws that can impinge on free speech."

Donuts runs over 200 registries covering everything from .academy to .zone but crucially for the MPAA also .movie, .watch and .pictures.

Pluses and minuses

It's not difficult to see why such a deal makes sense for both the MPAA and the registries.

IP lawyers have complained for over a decade about the game of whack-a-mole they are forced to play in an effort to deal with online piracy. An insistence on the part of domain name overseer ICANN that it needs to stay neutral when it comes to content issues has blunted determined efforts to introduce intellectual property protections at the top level of the internet.

Internet registries and registrars have traditionally taken a similar line, much to the frustration of the IP lobby - perhaps best illustrated by the constant cat-and-mouse game to shut down the Pirate Bay. In most cases, copyright owners have to go direct to hosting companies to get infringing websites taken down. In response, copyright infringers simply move their websites elsewhere or sign up with companies that resist IP demands typically located in countries with weak IP laws.

As such, the deal with Donuts and now Radix gives the MPAA a quick and complete solution to shutting down such websites and domains that link to websites they can't touch.

From the registry's perspective, the MPAA deal is a way to differentiate themselves in the market by being a "good citizen" in the domain name world. The companies are competing with established names, such as dot-com that are hundreds or thousands of times their size. If they can hold themselves out as a copyright-infringement free zone, they are likely to gain business support.

It's not hard to imagine how the entire movie industry could get behind the .movie extension if every IP lawyer in Hollywood advocates for it.

The downside

As the EFF points out however, this is a significant downside. Despite Donuts outlining the safeguards and standards [PDF] it has put in place, it still remains a private agreement between two companies without any form of independent oversight and very limited transparency.

The agreement is voluntary so a registry can walk away from it if they feel the MPAA abuses the terms. But, of course, IP lawyers are not going to immediately abuse the process. Instead, as happens in many venues across the globe, the envelope on what is a "large scale" piracy operation will be constantly pushed at, and good relations between the two signatories will make it difficult for a registry to walk away from the agreement.

Although the registries maintain the right to act entirely independently of any referral, and despite referral requirements including the need for the MPAA to supply screenshots and detailed descriptions of the activity they say is taking place on the domain, those referrals and the actions taken by the registry, including any deliberations, will remain secret.

The registries have not introduced an independent review of their decisions, or any form of independent appeal. There is no redress for a wrong referral that could kill a legitimate website.

Also, the registries have not agreed to publish stats or details of the process. There is no public window or ability to comment. And there is no requirement on either party to reveal the details of any referral. In short, the process is ripe for abuse.

Even the best intentioned fox should never be left in charge of the henhouse. ®

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