A new chair for SIDN's watchdog

For eight years, Ary-Jan van der Meer served on SIDN's Complaints & Appeals Board (C&AB), holding the chair for much of that time. He has recently stepped down, however, to be succeeded in the chair by Judith de Vreese, one of the existing members. We therefore invited Ary-Jan and Judith to talk about the C&AB's work.

What exactly does the C&AB do?

Ary-Jan: "Anyone who is unhappy about a decision that SIDN has made can ask the C&AB to intervene. So, for example, if SIDN closes a registrar's account for not paying their bills, the registrar can appeal to us. Or, if SIDN decides that a domain name should be transferred from one registrant to another, the registrant that loses out can appeal. We then look at the case and decide whether the decision was justified under SIDN's General Terms and Conditions. We also consider complaints from people who are unhappy about certain domain names. You can complain if you believe that a domain name's registration and use are contrary to public order or decency. Where cases like that are concerned, our rulings are based on more general legal principles and previous rulings."

How did you come to join the C&AB?

Judith: "As a judge, I often hear cases relating to intellectual property, including domain names. Usually, there's a dispute about who should be allowed to use the domain name or whether a domain name infringes someone else's rights, e.g. by using their trading name. I liked the idea of getting more involved with the subject. The C&AB is also interesting because it brings you into contact with people with different outlooks. Most of the members are technical people or lawyers working in ICT law. Some of the people you work with don't have a legal background, but have lots of experience with domain names."Ary-Jan: "It was much the same for me. And, like Judith, I began as an ordinary member. But I've been on the C&AB for eight years now, and it's healthy for a body such as the C&AB to change its membership every so often. Otherwise it's liable to develop tunnel vision."

What made the two of you suitable chairs for the C&AB?

Judith: "Of course, when it comes to the technology behind domain names, neither us is more than a well-informed lay person. But, as judges, we have a lot of expertise in decision-making, chairing sessions and communicating rulings effectively."

Why does the C&AB matter?

Ary-Jan: "If you don't like a decision that SIDN has made, you can't simply go elsewhere to get what you want: there is no other .nl registry. Although you can always go to court if you want, it's great that there's a cost-effective, low-threshold and independent alternative."Judith: "And, as SIDN acknowledges, the C&AB keeps SIDN on its toes. It's important that an organisation like SIDN knows that it needs to be able to justify its decisions."

How independent is the C&AB, really? After all, you're paid by SIDN…

Ary-Jan: "As a judge, I was paid by the government. But that didn't prevent me ruling on cases brought against the government. No one ever questioned whether I reached my decisions independently. I think that independence is innate to the judiciary. Suppose that we had to rule on a case brought by someone who knows one of our members personally. That member just wouldn't be involved in the case. It would go without saying. No member of the C&AB has any ties with SIDN and all our sessions take place away from SIDN's offices."

What is the chair's role?

Ary-Jan: "The chair makes sure that the regulations are followed, monitors all proceedings and leads sessions of the C&AB. Also, all complaints and appeals go to the chair first. If it's obvious that a case is inadmissible or unfounded, the chair can reject it without it being considered in session. Naturally, the complainant or appellant can appeal against a decision to throw a case out."Judith: "In my three years on the C&AB, I've only attended one session. As chair, I expect to be a little busier!"

What is the most interesting case you've considered so far?

Judith: "The case I just mentioned was fairly straightforward, about the cancellation of a registrar's contract with SIDN. The complaints about domain names accused of being inconsistent with public decency are the most interesting. For example, there was one about a domain name based on the name of a seven-year-old girl, who had disappeared a few years earlier. It was quite a high-profile case at the time. The domain name was registered by the owner of a 'reincarnation therapy' practice. On the website linked to the domain name, the owner claimed to be in contact with the dead girl. A lot of people would find that distasteful, but did that make it inconsistent with public order or decency, as the complainant argued? The C&AB of the day decided that it didn't."Ary-Jan: "Whether something is inconsistent with public decency depends on the context. Suppose that someone registers 'heilhitler.nl'. On the face of it, that looks inconsistent with public decency. To my mind, it certainly would be if it were registered by a neo-Nazi organisation. But what if it were registered by the Anne Frank Foundation and used to highlight the dangers posed by leaders like Hitler? In other words, a lot depends on how a domain name is used. However, that doesn't imply that we get involved in looking at website content. If, for example, an organisation advocating paedophilia registered the domain name 'martijn.nl', it might very well be that their website is inconsistent with public decency. But that doesn't make the domain name itself indecent. It's fascinating to debate such distinctions."

Do you think that people know how to make a complaint or appeal?

Judith: "In view of the small number of cases referred to us, it does look as if maybe they don't. However, I think that the C&AB does in fact have quite a high profile. Anyone who's really unhappy about something can fairly easily find out about us and get in touch. There's information on SIDN's website, we get exposure during Domain Name Debates and we are mentioned in all the written contracts. And, of course, interviews like this help as well."

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