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.cat Domain a Casualty in Catalonian Independence Crackdown

On October 1, a referendum will be held on whether Catalonia, an autonomous region of the northeast of Spain, should declare itself to be an independent country.  The Spanish government has ruled the referendum illegal, and is taking action on a number of fronts to shut it down and to censor communications promoting it. One of its latest moves in this campaign was a Tuesday police raid of the offices of puntCAT, the domain registry that operates the .cat top-level domain, resulting in the seizure of computers, the arrest of its head of IT for sedition, and the deletion of domains promoting the October 1 referendum, such as refoct1.cat (that website is now available at an alternate URL).

The .cat top-level domain was one of the earliest new top-level domains approved by ICANN in 2004, and is operated by a non-governmental, non-profit organization for the promotion of Catalan language and culture. Despite the seizure of computers at the puntCAT offices, because the operations of the domain registry are handled by an external provider, .cat domains not connected with the October 1 referendum (including eff.cat, EFF's little-known Catalan language website) have not been affected.

We have deep concerns about the use of the domain name system to censor content in general, even when such seizures are authorized by a court, as happened here. And there are two particular factors that compound those concerns in this case. First, the content in question here is essentially political speech, which the European Court of Human Rights has ruled as deserving of a higher level of protection than some other forms of speech. Even though the speech concerns a referendum that has been ruled illegal, the speech does not in itself pose any imminent threat to life or limb.

The second factor that especially concerns us here is that the seizure took place with only 10 days remaining until the scheduled referendum, making it unlikely that the legality of the domains' seizures could be judicially reviewed before the referendum is scheduled to take place. The fact that such mechanisms of legal review would not be timely accessible to the Catalan independence movement, and that the censorship of speech would therefore be de facto unreviewable, should have been another reason for the Spanish authorities to exercise restraint in this case.

Whether it's allegations of sedition or any other form of unlawful or controversial speech, domain name intermediaries should not be held responsible for the content of websites that utilize their domains. If such content is unlawful, a court order directed to the publisher or host of that content is the appropriate way for authorities to deal with that illegality, rather than the blanket removal of entire domains from the Internet. The seizure of .cat domains is a worrying signal that the Spanish government places its own interests in quelling the Catalonian independence movement above the human rights of its citizens to access a free and open Internet, and we join ordinary Catalonians in condemning it.

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