Showing posts with label internet issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label internet issues. Show all posts

Forum Thread: What is the Public Forum Doctrine? (Discussion)

(What a webmaster and users discover after registrar and webhost GoDaddy disables a domain name and website.)


Although the Public Forum Doctrine has more to do with protected speech during government-sponsored events and on government property (both real and virtual), this is a topic worth discussing because it isn't clear (at least in my mind) how the internet is defined as a forum space, for example, private vs. public. The Public Forum Doctrine defines the Open Public Forum as "State property that has traditionally been open to the public for speech, assembly and debate. Public forum property has traditionally included public streets, sidewalks, parks and city squares."

Does this apply to the virtual world as well, at least on U.S. soil?

In essence, who "owns" the internet? No one, supposedly. Yes, a governing body called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Names) develops policy and guidelines regarding the sale and use of domain names (such as, which one must have in order to set up a website (even that free blogger url is considered a subdomain, for example, the blogspot address for is ICANN is an international governing body that is supposed to set policy regarding domain aftermarket sales, the domain deletion process and cycle, and trademark and cybersquatting issues, among other things. In my opinion, ICANN doesn't always enforce its own rules, often resulting in confusion and, yes, cronyism among some board members and backroom deals--another story altogether.

In any case, the U.S. government can only enforce Freedom of Speech issues as it pertains to internet activities on U.S. soil. The U.S. also has jurisdiction over VeriSign, the company that manages the .com and .net extensions (known as Top Level Domains or TLDs) and NeuStar, the company that manages .us. So if a crook from Asia uses a domain with a .com extension to rip off a U.S. citizen or national on U.S. territory, the government can file an injunction to order VeriSign and the actual registrar to disable that spammer's domain name, which, in effect, disables the website.

So, theoretically, the U.S. Government can exercise significant power over the majority of domain names (.com being the most popular, .net the second).

Which brings me to On its website, Rate My Cop has posted its purpose: is a privately-held company based in Los Angeles. The website allows registered users to leave written feedback about their interactions with police officers, and rank the officer's service based on three criteria: Professionalism, Fairness and Satisfaction.

Although a poetry and a cop rating website may seem to have little in common, just hang with me for a bit.

In early March, GoDaddy, the registrar and hosting company for the domain name, decided to shut the site down. According to Wired, Rate My Cop went dark "after hosting company GoDaddy unceremonious[ly] pulled-the-plug on the site in the wake of outrage from criticism-leery cops."

No warning.

When the website owner called GoDaddy's Support Center, he was told that the site was shut down for "suspicious activity." Later the registrar backtracked and said that Rate My Cop went over its three terabyte bandwidth limit.

Yeah, right.

What really happened is that several police organizations had filed their complaints directly to GoDaddy, who then unilaterally decided to shut the site down, never mind freedom of speech issues, which (the last time I looked) includes the right to offer opinions, both good and bad, about cops and any other public officials charged with serving the public.

No injunctions, no legal process at all, just Bob Parsons, the owner of GoDaddy, deciding that he was all nine judges on the Supreme Court.

Rate My Cop is back up and running, but what about the small-website owner who doesn't have the deep pockets to fight the moneyed domain registrars and the powerful police lobby?

Fortunately, the outcry over this illegal act was loud and clear. Members of, a free-speech forum that focuses on the foibles and missteps of GoDaddy, and others posted about about's plight.

As I see it, the owners of Rate My Cop have set up a Public Forum, much like Rate My Professors, reviled by college faculty all over, and no one seems to call for its banning (nor should they). The police lobby argues that placing generally public information (name, badge and home phone numbers, and even home addresses) places police officers in clear and present danger. While it might be a good idea for the owners to nix posting police officers' addresses and phone numbers from being plastered on the web, they are not obligated to do so.

Right now, is in its infancy, so very few people are paying us much heed. But what happens when we become really noticed and the powers in the literary community start complaining about our great big loud voice to our registrar and host? Will (the current registrar of this domain) and Google, the owner of blogger, simply cave and disconnect us without due process?

I don't know about, but Google is well-known for its sometimes heavy-handed style of dealing with its publishers and pretty much hides behind its Terms Of Service (TOS) when dealing with cranky sites.

Because the U.S. has jurisdiction over .net and .com, does the First Amendment preclude an internet company's TOS? On the other hand, given that these are private companies, are they obligated to allow webmasters to incorporate the Public Forum Doctrine, even if aspects of the doctrine may violate a company's TOS?

My primary questions, then: do only the rich enjoy true freedom of speech on the web, money and connections trumping all? Or is the internet supposed to be a venue for unfettered, serious and trivial, discussion by everyone, even if we might personally find some of the content highly offensive, such as the content in, no matter who manages the domain name and hosting?

Here are some links to discussions about the Public Forum Doctrine:

Freedom Forum

In The Public Forum Doctrine and Its Possible Application to the Internet, author Angioletta Sperti, LL.M., UCLA School of Law, says, "It is ... necessary to clarify to what extent the Internet may be considered public and if private entities must be included in the Internet as a public forum and assimilated to the State for constitutional purposes or if a distinction is more appropriate."

This relevant article, certainly for this forum, is well worth reading.

What are your thoughts?

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