Just five more days before April 1. Dutch parliament member Geert Wilders promised that his short anti-Islam film “Fitna” would be released in March. Time is running out.
After months of controversy and a consistently delayed release, many Dutch are suffering from Wilders-fatigue. Internationally, however, the attention for Wilders’ film is currently peaking.
Initially, Wilder’s wanted his film to be broadcasted in its entirety by one of the Dutch television networks. The networks refused, however, arguing that they were not a platform for Wilders’ campaign. They did offer to include fragments in their news reports. After exhausting several other options, and turning down the offer of the Dutch Muslim Broadcast Network to broadcast it on national television, Wilders decided that he would release his film on the web, though he did not specify how. He already had set up a website – consisting of nothing more than a picture of a gilded Koran and the words “Geert Wilders presents Fitna – Coming Soon” – at Fitnathemovie.com.
If you click on that link, you won’t see the Wilders’ site, but a notification of his registrar Network Solutions that they have suspended the domain while they are “investigating whether the site’s content is in violation of the Network Solutions Acceptable Use Policy.” That message has been up for about five days now. One wonders how long it takes to investigate six words and a single picture.
On March 22, Dutch news outlets briefly reported the suspension of the domain, but they apparently didn’t know what to make of it. Wilders himself shrugged it off as just another instance of a long series of attempts to thwart his plans. If need be, he said, he would personally hand out DVD copies on the Dam square in Amsterdam.
Elsewhere, however, the action by Network Solutions has generated substantial controversy. A post on the Washington Post’s Security Fix weblog received nearly 200 comments in three days – about 20 times the regular volume of comments for the weblog. Many of the comments are highly critical of Network Solutions, calling the suspension of the domain an act of censorship or at least highly inconsistent, given the multitude of websites with much more inflammatory material that haven’t been suspended. One person pointed to Hizbollah.org, one of the official website of the Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Elsewhere, a commentator pointed to the website of the Tamil Tigers, another known terrorist group. All of these domains are registered through Network Solutions.
Of course, strictly speaking, there is no wrong committed here. Network Solutions is well within its rights to suspend any domain it feels is in violation of its Acceptable Use Policy. While many commenters called this an act of censorship, that term is typically reserved for state control over the media, not for the decisions of private entities to publish or remove certain opinions. As long as they honor their contracts, they are free to do so.
Rather than asking whether Network Solutions acted appropriately, the more interesting question is: Why did they act this way? Why did Network Solutions suspend Wilders’ website, given that it, so far, has not hosted offensive content and given that they do not suspend websites that are clearly more offensive? Why are they seemingly volunteering to take on the enormous task of policing the huge number of websites that are registered through them?
The spokeswoman for the company, as quoted on the Security Fix weblog, said that they had received numerous complaints. Furthermore, she said: “When you look at the history and violence surrounding this particular situation…some of the bad things that have happened or could happen, that was part of what we were thinking in suspending the Web site.”
Many commenters seem to think Network Solutions is motivated by fear, that the company was perhaps intimidated by Muslim fanatics. The spokeswoman said, however, that they had not received any specific threats.
Why, then, suspend the domain?
The reason may be much more banal than anyone so far has suggested. One of the major cost components for registrars and hosting companies is their call center operations. In a recent study we concluded for the OECD, many ISPs mentioned their customers support and abuse management as their highest security-related cost.
If you are under pressure to contain or cut those costs, then the most effective way to deal with a website that generates a significant number of incoming complaints – whether by phone or via email – is to just suspend the domain. The reason that other, much more offensive, sites are not suspended is simply that not enough people have complained about them.
Could it be that banal? Two days after one of the commenters on the Security Fix weblog pointed out that Network Solutions also registered Hizbollah.org, that domain was also taken down. Why? The company spokeswoman said they had “received numerous complaints” (see the 'Update' at the end of the post).
Anyone who figures this out has discovered an alternative strategy for a Denial of Service attack. The main difference is that this one is completely legal and requires no technical skills whatsoever.
Meanwhile, we are still waiting for Wilders’ film. It is nearly April 1.
Update March 27, 20:41h GMT+1: The film has just been released here.