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Nominet Second Level Domains: risk of confusion

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - 09:28

Nominet’s latest proposal to issue second level domain names directly under .uk is considerably simpler than its predecessor. Registrants of new domains will still have to demonstrate that they can be contacted through a UK address, but technical security measures such as DNSSEC will now form a separate work programme covering the whole .uk domain, not just new second level domains. However there are still aspects of the proposal that seem likely to confuse and mislead users of .uk domains without providing any compensating benefits to users or registrants.

The proposal suggests a very open registration policy, with almost any string being allowed as a second level domain. In particular there is no restriction on registrations likely to be confused with existing second level hierarchies or global top level domains. For example any of the following could be registered: company.uk, organisation.uk, limited.uk, university.uk, edu.uk, college.uk, government.uk and hospital.uk. Where the existing second level hierarchy also has an open registration policy (as with .co.uk and .org.uk) this creates a possibility of confusion of the ownership of a domain or website: is nominet.organisation.uk the same as nominet.org.uk, or just a server run by the person who happens to have registered organisation.uk? Where the existing hierarchy has restrictions on who may register - as .gov.uk, .ac.uk, .ltd.uk and .nhs.uk do - there is likely to be confusion as to the nature of the organisation as well. There’s nothing in Nominet’s proposal to ensure that st-davids.hospital.uk is a regulated health provider. Indeed it is more likely not to be, as the 'obvious' owners of these new domains probably won’t be able to register them under Nominet’s proposed restrictions (but no longer a complete ban) on re-sale of third-level domains under newly registered second level ones.

Furthermore if anyone were to create a third level domain of this kind and use it to deceive or infringe a trademark then Nominet’s current dispute resolution process wouldn’t help resolve the problem. This can only apply to domains registered by Nominet, i.e. the second level (company or hospital), not to any third level domain the registrant may choose to create under it. To deal with those the deceived person or injured rightsholder would need to go to court.

Nominet’s new proposal on giving priority for new domains is also likely to create confusion. Although the basic idea seems simple and fair – that the person who has held a third level .uk domain for longest should have first refusal on the matching second-level domain – it will not be applied consistently. The ‘first refusal’ policy only applies to the second level hierarchies managed by Nominet (.co.uk, .org.uk, .me.uk, .ltd.uk, .plc.uk and .net.uk; the consultation paper also lists .sch.uk, but at a round-table it was suggested that in fact there are no registrants at third level in that hierarchy). It appears that no priority will be given to registrants in .ac.uk, .nhs.uk, police.uk, etc., despite Nominet’s argument that the ‘first refusal’ policy rewards loyalty to the .uk domain. In .gov.uk a few current holders will have absolute priority, whereas others such as bis.gov.uk and homeoffice.gov.uk will have no priority and their equivalents will be available for anyone to register immediately. In future hse.uk (if it exists) will be the Health and Safety Executive, but hmrc.uk will definitely not be the taxman, even if he mails you offering a refund!

We’ve pointed out these problems in our response: recommending that the priority system should be applied equally across all existing .uk second level domains and that Nominet should follow the policy it has proposed for the .wales and .cymru domains by reserving names likely to be associated with public sector bodies. These changes would reduce the likelihood of confusion and deception in the .uk domain.