Defining Objectionable Content

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-03-25 Print this article Print

Opinion: Registrars and hosting services can't enforce their terms of service universally and thoroughly, but they can at least be reasonable.

Prepare to be stunned: There is offensive material on the Web. Some of it is obscene, some violent, some racist. Oh well, it's a free country, right?

Well, sort of. It wasn't so free for Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has been in the news lately for a controversial film he intends to produce. The film is called Fitna and Wilders describes it as a call to action against the Koran, which he describes as "a fascist book" and Islam as "something that is at least very bad for our values and our society."

Yikes, that's incendiary all right. Mind you, this movie does not yet exist. But for weeks other Dutch officials have been publicly pressuring Wilders not to make it, and that's on top of the very loud protests from the Muslim world.

Some of those protests reached Network Solutions, the famous domain registrar, which holds the domain for a site Wilders made to promote the film and hosted the content. Recently, in response to complaints, Network Solutions removed access to the site and replaced it with a notice that the company was investigating claims that the site violated its terms of service.

Network Solutions spokesperson Susan Wade was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that "[I]n this situation with the dialogue that's happening throughout the world we've made the choice to suspend the site as of last night...This site is suspended so people can't see the content right now but the customer still has access to their site. They can make whatever changes are necessary as we complete our investigation."

The same AP story says that the site had shown the movie's "title, 'Fitna,' the words 'Coming Soon' and an image of a gilded Quran."

This is a complicated story. Much of the discussion around it has had to do with Netsol's role as a registrar. But I think it's more important that they are also the Web host for the site. This, it seems to me, makes an important difference, since the content is actually on servers owned by Network Solutions. Does it make enough of a difference?

Network Solutions' hosting terms of service says that the company has the right to remove any "material that is obscene, defamatory, libelous, unlawful, harassing, abusive... hate propaganda" and "profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable material of any kind or nature."

Well, that's comprehensive: "...otherwise objectionable material of any kind or nature" seems to me to bring within it potentially anything at all.

Given all that, let's re-examine what was on the site at the time Network Solutions took it down: the movie's title ("Fitna"), the words "Coming Soon" and an image of a gilded Quran. We all might know what Wilders planned to do in the movie, because he said so elsewhere, but there's nothing on that site that violates Network Solutions' terms of service unless they are interpreting those terms in the most flexible way they can, as I said, as a stopgap to let them be arbitrary.

And arbitrary it is. John Berryhill points out that other sites are up, even on Network Solutions' networks, that one could easily interpret as objectionable, such as the Tamil Tiger Web site

The number of sites and domains managed by a company like Network Solutions is so huge that it's impossible for them to police them for violations of terms, especially such nebulous terms. If they can't at least be consistent, and if they're going to take a site down merely because it might become offensive some day, or perhaps simply because some other people object to it, then they're being arbitrary.

I already knew better than to trust Network Solutions, but this event is still disappointing. I don't know whether callous or spineless is the better adjective for it, but whatever the word is, it's not a good one. Even from Network Solutions we should expect more.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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