The official TLD for the United States of America, .US, has been managed and overseen by the NTIA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, since 1998, with Neustar serving as the .US domain name registrar pursuant to an agreement with NTIA.
The domain name at the center of the dispute was being used by its registrant, Jeremy Rubin, to raise money via the sale of a “digital collectible lapel pins” paid for in Ethereum (a digital currency) to fight the extreme right in the US around the time of the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 that saw participants chanting anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans. The domain name was initially suspended as it contained a term banned under the “seven dirty words” principle. This policy arose from a 1972 monologue by American stand-up comedian George Carlin called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”.
In a landmark 1978 decision in the case Federal Communications Commission v Pacifica Foundation the US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had the power to fine broadcasters for airing inappropriate content (namely the George Carlin monologue, in that particular case) in order primarily to protect children as well as other persons offended by such content. This became enshrined in FCC policy, but critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that it contravened the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School took up the cause in relation to the suspended domain name and, as a result, the ban has now been lifted.
The “seven dirty words” policy was also previously applied to .COM, .NET and .ORG domain names in the early days of the Internet when Network Solutions was the sole registrar for these TLDs, but died out once other registrars acquired the right to offer them.
The softening of policy in this regard is also reflected in other jurisdictions, such as the UK, where, in 2014, the Registry Nominet conducted a review of its registration policy for .UK domain names with a view to determining the extent to which it should be restricting offensive or otherwise inappropriate words or expressions in domain name registrations.
Members of the public were asked to contribute their views, in particular as to whether any terms should be blocked completely, but the vast majority of the 170 respondents were in favour of continuing open registration.
The outcome of the review was the implementation of a system of post-registration domain name screening, with suspension or de-registration possible only for domain names that appeared to signal or encourage serious sexual offences. This did not extend to swear words or obscene language due to, among others, concerns about free speech, the technical difficulties inherent in any checks based on a list of banned terms (the so called ‘Scunthorpe problem’) and Nominet declining to act as arbiter in any such cases.
Authored by David Taylor and Cindy Mikul