Mag
Interview
Connecting The Strings: ISNIC’s CEO Talks Internet Freedom

Connecting The Strings: ISNIC’s CEO Talks Internet Freedom

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published October 5, 2017

Jens Pétur Jensen is the CEO of ISNIC, the company responsible for the .is domain. This small company, comprised of less than a dozen employees in a downtown office, is the company anyone can go to in order to register a .is domain. Normally, this company quietly goes about its business, concentrating solely on registration. However, twice in recent history they have made international headlines; first, in 2014, when the Islamic State registered two .is domains, and last month, when the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer (having been virtually chased off the internet in the United States), registered a .is domain.

In both cases, media reporting confused the difference between web hosting and domain registry, implying at times that the Islamic State or neo-Nazis were hosting websites in Iceland. In both cases, the reality was very different, and it’s that difference that matters to Jens.

Hosting and domains

“We don’t do content,” Jens tells us. “We can never be held responsible for content on the internet. Most people agree on that, and probably everybody who understands the difference [between hosting and domain registry] does.”

The difference is actually very simple. Hosting is a service where a website’s content is stored on a particular server. This server’s location is marked by an IP address. A domain is merely a URL that points to the IP address. This distinction is very important, not least for legal reasons.

“He said, ‘My life is in danger. I don’t trust that you won’t send it to the Icelandic authorities, and that they won’t reveal it further.’ And I said, ‘You don’t have to trust me because I will send it.’”

“Clearly, the site was a violation of Icelandic law,” Jens explains. “But the website is hosted in the States. So the police have no means of taking it down, because they don’t have any jurisdiction over anyone involved.”

What ISNIC was able to do, though, was refer to their terms of service. It was these terms of service that enabled ISNIC to eventually disconnect Daily Stormer’s .is domain from its hosting.

How they locked the Nazis out

“We asked the registrant [Andrew Anglin] for proof of his existence, and additionally, pursuant to Article 22 Paragraph 4 of our rules, to prove his legal address,” Jens tells us. “And he didn’t want to send it. He said, ‘My life is in danger. I don’t trust that you won’t send it to the Icelandic authorities, and that they won’t reveal it further.’ And I said, ‘You don’t have to trust me because I will send it—I’m obliged. What they do with that information is not in my hands.'”

The domain is suspended now, and will expire at the end of the registration year. Then it will be available to anyone. Jens dismisses criticisms that have arisen on the matter, primarily from the far-right on the internet, claiming that suspending the domain would be a violation of freedom of speech.

“If a Nazi is speaking about freedom of speech, he should maybe do a little more history reading,” Jens quips.

What about the Islamic State?

That said, Jens emphasises that freedom is important, and that there is nothing in Icelandic law as far as hate speech is concerned that pertains to domain registration.

“And fortunately not,” Jens says. “That would open up a thing that no one would want to see. That would open up a committee deciding on every domain. I don’t think there would ever be peace over such a committee.”

Jens refers to Norway and their attempt at something like this, where they ended up with a list of up to 3,000 banned domains. This, of course, not only ignores the existence of things like VPNs and proxy servers; it ignores simply connecting to a website through their IP address directly.

“You can have rules about everything. And then you can have situations that are unforeseen that we’ll just have to confront and solve when they come up.”

Nonetheless, there is again the matter of the Islamic State. We point out that there didn’t seem to be much hesitation to disconnect their domains.

“That’s completely right, and that’s a little embarrassing for ISNIC, because of the comparison,” Jens says. “There was no hesitation, but there was a lot of panic during that weekend. The matter came to light on Friday, I called the board together on Sunday. The same procedure was used. The registrant didn’t want to reveal his home address or his real name. We didn’t want to be associated with this business. On Monday, we got a ruling from the Foreign Ministry to shut down the business contract, because it was a listed terrorist group. To compare those two is unfair, in my opinion. Even though they’re Nazis, I don’t take them very seriously.”

Jens admits to not being entirely aware of the situation in the United States, and adds that the situation with the Islamic State was different from Daily Stormer for another reason, saying, “ISIS was working under the initials I.S., so they were taking our brand and using it for a state they were trying to build. I’d do the same again if I had to. You can have rules about everything. And then you can have situations that are unforeseen that we’ll just have to confront and solve when they come up. And this was a situation like that.”

The freedom to call the president an asshole

At the core of this entire discussion, Jens believes that freedom is paramount.

“It is of the most vital importance that we have absolute independence for registrants,” Jens says. “We do not ‘give out’ domains, as is often reported. We don’t do that. Domains are registered by the registrant. He is the author of the domain, and he is the responsible person, not ISNIC. I’ve often said I wish that someone had registered olafurragnargrimssonisanasshole.is. That would have been a very good example for us to stand up and say the registrant should have that domain, but he should stand behind it.”

In closing, I ask if there are any porn sites that use the .is domain. Forever taking the neutral stance when it comes to the internet, Jens characteristically responds, “I have no idea. I don’t go keeping track of what content is using our domains. But given the volume of porn on the internet, I think it’s mathematically impossible that there isn’t some porn using an .is domain.”

But if there is, it’s not Jens’ problem.


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