Police seek powers to shut websites

Police tape. BBC Soca wants Nominet to be able to shut down sites deemed to be "criminal"

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The police are seeking powers to shut down websites deemed to be engaged in "criminal" activity.

The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has tabled a plan for Nominet, which oversees .uk web addresses, to be given the domain closing power.

Nominet said the idea was only a proposal and invited people to join the debate on the form of the final policy.

IT lawyers said the proposal would be "worrying" if it led to websites going offline without judicial oversight.

"It's not policy at this stage," said Eleanor Bradley, director of operations at Nominet.

She said SOCA's proposal emerged from changes made to Nominet's policy development process earlier in 2010, as well as experiences with closing down a series of criminal sites in the last 12 months.

In the proposal, SOCA pointed out that Nominet currently has no obligation to close down criminal websites. SOCA wants this changed so domains can be cancelled if law enforcement agencies deem them to be engaged in criminal activities, and inform Nominet of their conclusion.

Ms Bradley SOCA's proposal was the "very beginning of the process" to update Nominet's policies.

"We now need to get a balanced group of stakeholders together to talk about the policy and its implications," she said.

Since SOCA's proposal was posted on the Nominet site, feedback had started to come in that was helping to define who should be invited to join a formal discussion of the plan, said Ms Bradley.

She invited those to whom the proposal was relevant to get in touch. "We want to make sure the stakeholder group is balanced," she said.

No timetable has been drawn up for when the proposal would be discussed or when any resulting policy would be adopted.

"If you are going to do this, then fine, but it needs judicial oversight," said barrister and IT lawyer David Harris, adding that that conferring these powers might be better done by updating the Computer Misuse Act.

Nick Lockett, a lawyer at DLL specialising in computer law, said he was "deeply concerned" about SOCA's proposal if it meant it could act before a conviction had been secured.

"In a world of online retailing, the ability for a police officer to seize any business, whether that is blocking a domain or seizing the servers - pre-conviction or certainly pre-warrant - would be a dramatic change in the relationship between the police and the internet community," he told BBC News.

He also said the police would have to be very careful about the sites they judged to be engaged in criminal activity. Mistakes that resulted in shutting down a legitimate site would leave them open to claims for "massive damages" he warned.

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