Cyberlaw Clinic Helps Eliminate “Seven Words” Policy for Registration of .US Domain Names

The Clinic has had the honor of working over the past year, along with our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to support Jeremy Rubin in his efforts to register the domain name, Jeremy created his website and registered the domain back in 2017 and began offering a “virtual lapel pin” that allowed Ethereum (a popular digital currency) users to support opposition to anti-semitic and white supremacist conduct in the United States around the time of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. The domain name registrar initially allowed Jeremy’s registration, then abruptly terminated it (citing the use of the word “fuck” in the name). We are pleased to note that—after a lot of back and forth (and significant patience on Jeremy’s part)—the domain name is now (back) in Jeremy’s hands and the site is now (back) up and running. We are also pleased that this incident prompted re-evaluation of a policy and practice of the United States Department of Commerce with respect to the .us top level domain (or “TLD”) that clearly violated the First Amendment.  

Domain name geeks (do such people exist?!) may be aware that .us is unlike many other TLDs insofar as it serve as the official TLD for the United States of America. Unlike other TLDs (like .gov), it is not limited to use by government entities or organizations—private actors (like Jeremy) can register .us domain names, as long those registrants meet certain basic requirements. Since 1998, the .us TLD has been managed and overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”), which is part of the Department of Commerce.  Neustar serves as domain name registrar with respect to the .us TLD pursuant to agreements with NTIA.

As a general rule, First Amendment law makes clear that the government cannot impose content-based restrictions on speech. The well-known case, Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978), held that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) may regulate over-the-air broadcasts of the so-called “seven dirty words” comedic bit made famous by George Carlin. But, that ruling is limited to broadcasts over public airwaves and is inapplicable to other forms of media distribution.

It thus surprised Jeremy (and us) to learn that NTIA and Neustar had a policy of using the Pacifica list of seven words to police domain name registrations. NTIA and Neustar saw fit to cancel Jeremy’s registration in accordance with that policy upon noting that it incorporated the “f-word.”

Jeremy pushed back on his own, then got the EFF and Cyberlaw Clinic teams involved to help communicate our collective dissatisfaction about this policy to Neustar and NTIA. Last month, we learned that Neustar and NTIA were reversing course, allowing Jeremy to proceed with the use of, and more generally removing these kinds of restrictions from future domain name registrations.  

EFF’s blog post is here—a win for Jeremy, for people who don’t like Nazis, and for speech online!



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