Why aren’t we allowed to know which domains the government has registered?

If you’ve already read this, you might want to skip to the end where I’ve added some extra information.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that there ought to be no problem finding out which official domain names (ie, those ending in .gov.uk) have been registered by government departments and organisations at both national and local level. It is, after all, one of things that, even if it isn’t directly published anywhere, should be amenable to a simple Freedom of Information request.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. And the various excuses given for not revealing the list are, to say the least, increasingly bizarre.

The story starts with an FoI request by John Cross to the Central Office of Information (COI) for a list of domain names ending in .gov.uk. The COI responded, not unreasonably, that they don’t hold the information themselves. However, they noted that it could be obtained from JANET, the organistion respondible for registering .gov.uk domains. Other people have made similar requests to COI, and got the same answer.

John didn’t immediately follow this up himself, at least not via WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but in April 2010 a similar request was sent to The JNT Association (aka JANET) by Steve Elibank. Entirely unreasonably in this case, the request was refused. JANET gave two reasons for their refusal:

1. The material is already available via the whois service (refusal under section 21 of the FOIA),
and
2. Release of the material in full is considered to “present a risk to the commercial interests” of JANET’s customers (refusal under section 43 of the FOIA).

As was pointed out in annotations to that request, these two reasons are mutually incompatible – if it’s already available, then releasing it can’t be a commercial problem. More relevantly, it simply isn’t true that the material is already available – whois will give you information about domains that you know about, but isn’t helpful for discovering the existance of domains that you don’t know about.

Not to be deterred, David Batley made a similar request in April this year. This, too, was refused on exactly the same grounds.

At this point, John Cross re-entered the fray with another request in which he detailed the reasons why neither section 21 nor section 43 were valid reasons to refuse the request. It’s also worth noting here that other requests for a full list of .ac.uk domains (ie, those owned by further educational establishments) and .police.uk domains had been successful.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, JANET eventually responded with the answer that, as a list of central government websites was online at the Cabinet Office website, they were refusing the request under section 21 (maerial available elsewhere). John pointed out that this wasn’t an answer to his question, and in the light of JANET’s continuing refusal to answer it, sent a formal complaint to the ICO. We still await the outcome of that (which may take several months, the ICO is not noted for the rapidity of its investigations).

That’s where I got involved. I was intrigued enough to wonder why JANET didn’t want to release the full list, so I submitted an FoI request to try to get some background information. In particular, I wanted to see the wording of the advice given that releasing the list would be a risk to commercial interests, and also to see if they had any documentation which explained why a list of .ac.uk domains can be released but not a list of .gov.uk domains. JANET’s response to this one, so far, has been to simply ignore it. They are now beyond the legal maximim period of time in which to answer FoI requests, but I’ve still got nothing.

More intriguingly, though, while trawling through the COI website, I came across the minutes of a meeting of the .gov.uk Naming and Approvals Committee in 2009. These contained a couple of action points:

JANET to notify COI of all domains for renewal at least 3 months in advance.

and

Review current list of .gov.uk domain names to check for redirects

Assuming these action points to have been, well, actioned, this rather gives the lie to the original claim by the COI that they don’t have the data as the committee cannot have carried out the second without it and, since this started in 2009, the first will have given them a full list by now (although, to be fair, this is a rather obscure reference and it’s entirely possible that the staff member who gave the original response was simply unaware that the committee might have the data). What I’ve now done, therefore, is go back to the COI with a new FoI request to see the contents of these notifications and the list. They’ve got until the 3rd October to answer that, so we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out.

In the meantime, John Cross has submitted yet another FoI request to JANET, this time asking just for a list of domains which aren’t included in the list available on the Cabinet Office website. That was sent on the 17th August. It’s now the 7th September, and the response is due no later than the 15th of this month. Despite that, John hasn’t even had the courtesy of a acknowledgement from JANET.

I would really like to know what’s going on here. Why is a list of government domain names considered commercially sensitive, when a list of educational and police domain names isn’t? Why has JANET suddenly become so unresponsive? Does anyone outside JANET have a clue? Does anyone inside JANET have a clue?

Update: A couple of things have transpired since I wrote the above. Firstly, by making enquiries elsewhere I discovered that JANET had, in fact, replied to these requests but the replies hadn’t got through – because they’d sent them with the destination address in the Bcc: header and nothing in the To: header, meaning that it inevitably got caught by spam filters. After having a certain amount of clue applied, the responses were re-sent. You can follow the link back to the request if you want, but here’s the response in full:

Dear Mark

The legal position is that JANET(UK) is not a body that is required to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. We have helped as far as we can and will provide no further information on this request.

Tim Kidd
Operations Director

The same response has been sent to John Cross here and here.

Unfortunately, this statement is contradicted by JANET’s own documentation. Their publication scheme states:

The Freedom of Information Act received Royal Assent on 30 November 2000. The Act requires all public bodies to adopt and maintain a publication scheme. JANET(UK) is a public body for the purposes of this legislation, since it is a company wholly owned by bodies that are public authorities viz. the UK education funding councils.

Oddly enough, that document is no longer linked from the website. Just in case they decide to remove it, I’ve kept a copy here.

So, what do we make of this? I’d really like to know more. If anyone inside JANET wants to be a mole, then please get in touch.

Copyright reform, from a centre-right perspective

I had a slightly back-handed compliment the other day. Former Pirate Party UK leader, Andrew Robinson, commented on Twitter, “For any PPUK people who automatically assume Conservatives = The Bad Guys, follow @MarkGoodge (& read his blog) for a pleasant surprise.” Now, I’m no abolitionist as far as Intellectual Property is concerned, and I certainly don’t endorse the entire PPUK manifesto, so I’m maybe not entirely a friend either, but I’ll still take any praise on offer.

Robinson’s comment, though, touches on a serious point. It’s widely perceived that Conservatives are opposed to any reform of copyright which reduces the power of rights holders. Even though this government has shown itself receptive to sensible proposals for reform, I detect a certain feeling even among my Conservative colleagues and acquaintances that this is being driven by the LibDem side of the coalition.

I think this is mistaken. There are a number of very good reasons why the centre-right should be at the forefront of Intellectual Property reform. As it happens, this has been recognised by the Prime Minister, whose “exam question” set in the commissioning of the Hargreaves review, “Could it be true that laws designed more than three centuries ago with the express purpose of creating economic incentives for innovation by protecting creators’ rights are today obstructing innovation and economic growth?” was answered by Professor Hargreaves with an unreserved “Yes”.

David Cameron’s question and Professor Hargreaves’ response are at the heart of why I campaign for copyright reform. While it suits the traditional media businesses to portray campaigners for reform as digital anarchists and freeloaders (and, to be fair, some campaigners really do belong in those categories), the reality is that the biggest motive for change isn’t the desire of a bunch of cheapskate teenagers to get music, movies and games for free. The reasons we need change to Intellectual Property laws are because the current laws are stifling innovation, hindering research, restricting the choice of consumers and adding to the costs of businesses.

One of the biggest misconceptions about copyright is that it protects the creative sector (by which we generally mean record labels, film studios, etc) from the effects of what is popularly termed “piracy” – that is, filesharing and free downloading which infringes the creators’ rights – and, because the creative sector is a strong contributor to the economy, copyright laws must be designed with the creative sector in mind. That was certainly the view taken by the previous government, and led directly to the creation of the Digital Economy Act (DEA). Papers released in response to a Freedom of Information request have shown just how determined Lord Mandelson, as Business Secretary, was to ensure that the law reflected the desires of the record companies.

What was ignored by Mandelson, though, is the cost to other sectors of the economy of laws which favour the media industry. BT – unarguably one of the most successful privatisations by the 1980s Conservative administration – has been in the forefront of opposition to the DEA, pointing out that the costs of implementing it will inevitably have to be passed on to consumer and business customers, whether they engage in large scale copyright infringement or not. And, as Professor Hargreaves points out, there is practically no independent evidence to support the record companies’ assertion that filesharing is a major source of lost revenue (a point backed up by, possibly rather surprisingly, a recent report from PRS) or that it has any cost to the economy as a whole.

The simple fact is that onerous Intellectual Property laws are anti-business. They create an artificial monopoly for a small sector of industry, while adding costs and erecting barriers to innovation elsewhere. It isn’t just giants such as BT which will suffer; the impact of the DEA will be felt by every ISP and every Internet user in the UK. Entrepreneur and innovator Martin Brennan has been forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to add a disclaimer to his adverts stating that use of his product, the JB7 music system, is illegal – just because it allows people to store music they have already paid for in digital format.

That last absurdity is one that, fortunately, the government has already signalled its intention to change. It’s a good start, but much more needs to be done. One of the things that will help to ensure more does get done is for those on the centre-right to realise that copyright reform is both pro-business and pro-individual; outcomes which are at the heart of Conservative policy. Andrew Robinson expresses a widely-held opinion that Conservatives are the enemies of copyright reform, and this is often associated with a belief that the left is more supportive. In reality, despite the sterling efforts of a few campaigners such as Tom Watson MP, the Labour movement in general is both anti-reform and unresponsive to popular opinion. The willingness of former Labour ministers such as Lord Mandelson to lend a ready ear to celebrity pressure to to prop up failing industries is well documented. So is the equally reactionary approach of the unions in adopting a BECTU-inspired proposal to make copyright law even more anti-consumer.

I’m not dismissive of the work done by campaigners from the left of politics. I’ve already mentioned Tom Watson, who seems to have almost single-handedly carried the torch for copyright reform within the Labour party. Singer/songwriter and left-wing activist Billy Bragg has repeatedly pointed out how the big record labels don’t speak for the majority of musicians. I’ve previously directed readers of my blog to this excellent diatribe by Steve Lawson, someone who is in no danger of being mistaken for a Tory boy.

But there seems to be a mismatch here: At grassroots level there’s a much stronger focus of Intellectual Property activism on the left, despite the near-terminal opposition of senior Labour politicians to reform, while leading politicians on the centre-right are far more amenable to reform despite a lack of significant grassroots pressure for it. I’ve tried, and failed, for example, to get an article along the lines of this one published on ConservativeHome. It seems that there isn’t any real appetite for Intellectual Property issues among Conservative activists (I’m not in a position to speak for the LibDems), which is disappointing. It’s doubly disappointing because Intellectual Property reform is a genuinely populist issue; with the exception of those who earn their living as part of the vested interests it’s almost impossible to find anyone speaking in favour of the status quo, while the number of people effectively criminalised and the number of businesses disadvantaged by existing legislation is huge. The PM seems to realise this, and so – at least, up to a point – does the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. But it needs more involvement from those on the ground level of centre-right politics. I’d like to be able to name some names from the centre-right the next time I write something like this. So step forward, wherever you are.