Domain Name Restrictions in Oman and the GCC

I wrote a column for Muscat Daily a while ago on the new arbitrary restrictions imposed on the registration of Omani (.om) domain names, but after I wrote this column I discovered that these restrictions are not completely arbitrary as the TRA has specified in the Omani Domain Name Regulations of 2012 a list of categories of prohibited domain names that may not be registered in Oman on technical, legal, moral, or social grounds. Even though this list has been around since 2012, I do not believe that it was actually enforced in the same way it is done now because I was able to register my domain name (riyadh.om) in 2015 without any issues. According to the Omani Domain Name Regulations, my domain name falls under a prohibited category because it also happens to be the name of a geographical location, and the registration of the names of capital cities is now not possible through any of the accredited registrars (such as Omantel). For example, amman.om, cairo.om, and doha.om are all unavailable for registration, not because someone has already registered them, but because they are restricted names. This can be verified using the .om WHOIS service.

It is not uncommon to have restrictions on domain name registrations. For example, all countries in the GCC have some sort of ‘reserved list’ of domain names that cannot be registered by members of the public. The documents that specify the rules for such reserved lists are available on the internet and may be viewed by everyone. Here are the regulations for Bahrain (Arabic only – Article 12), Kuwait (Section 47), Oman (Article 5), Qatar (Section 11), Saudi (Article 3), and the UAE (Section 5). However, different countries have different categories of prohibited domain names, and domain name registrations in Oman appears to be more restrictive than other GCC countries.

Having domain name restrictions can be extremely important in certain situations from a technical or a legal point of view. For example, allowing the use of certain technical terms as domain names may trigger operations on the domain name registry or may cause certain applications that access the domain name to behave in an unpredictable manner. Such technically prohibited domain names include terms such as WWW, WHOIS, ROOT, FTP, and HTTP. Allowing the registration of these technical terms can threaten the usability of the entire registry and may put the safety of internet users at risk. In the GCC, the registration of such technical terms is explicitly prohibited in Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi.

Domain names may also be prohibited on moral grounds as the registration of certain terms may be seen by members of the public as offensive from a social, cultural, or religious perspective. Examples of such prohibited domain names are those that include profane words. The domain name does not have to insult a specific person to fall under this prohibition and can be an abstract profane word on its own. Restrictions on this ground are found in the domain name regulations of all GCC countries.

A prohibition related to moral objections is the prohibition of registration of domain name on religious grounds. This prohibition is not based on the name being ‘offensive’, but it is based on the holy nature of certain religious terms and figures. This unique exception is found, for example, in Saudi where the regulations there prohibit domain names that include ‘names of religions and sects, sacred places, names and attributes of Allah and the names of the prophets and apostles’. Interestingly, religious objections to the registration of intellectual property rights can now be found in other areas, too. For example, the GCC Trade Mark Law, which was very recently adopted by Oman, allows the authorities to reject the application to register a trade mark if the mark is identical or similar to a religious symbol. In addition to Saudi, this exception is also found in Kuwait.

Domain names are also commonly prohibited from registration to avoid potential misrepresentation. This prohibition can be necessary to protect members of the public from being misled by those who maliciously register a domain name to impersonate another person or to establish a false affiliation with a place or an entity. This prohibition can also be useful to protect the reputation and commercial interest of established brands and celebrities. In Oman, the regulations have a specific prohibition against the registration of 2-letter domain names that resemble the code for another country. Therefore, it is prohibited to register domain names such as UK, JP, and FR. This is justified because registering these short country codes can grant the person registering this domain name the opportunity to misrepresent the affiliation of that country on a wide scale by creating subdomains. For example, if someone registers uk.om, that person would be able to create Amazon.uk.om, Apple.uk.om, and Google.uk.om or even Defence.uk.om, Gov.uk.om, and Parliament.uk.om – all of which can easily be confused with the addresses of the real websites and can put web users in the UK at a serious risk.

A more straightforward prohibition can be made against the registration of domain names that suggest a link with the government or similar official bodies. For example, some countries may prohibit the registration of domain names that contain the terms GOVERNMENT, MINISTRYOF, and BANKOF, as these terms can mislead members of the public into thinking the website is affiliated with the government or with a bank, even when there might not be an actual entity with the name in question. For example, the registration of BankOfSalalah.om would be prohibited even though there is no such bank in Oman with that name as the objective of the prohibition is to protect members of public from being misled and not necessarily protect the interests of an existing entity. This prohibition is found in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi and the UAE.

A similar prohibition aimed at protecting the interests of others bans the registration of names of celebrities, trademarks, and tribes. The restriction against the registration of names of celebrities appears to be necessary to protect members of the public from being misled as well as the celebrity from being associated with an unrelated website. This restriction is found in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi, and the UAE.

The prohibition against the registration of existing trademarks might sound reasonable at first instance, but it is not actually an easy one to justify because trademarks are only protected for a specific class of goods or services. Trademark law, in the Gulf and elsewhere, does not give a trademark owner a monopoly on the use of the term and allows multiple people to use the same trademark for different goods as long as these two goods are not related. This means that it is possible for one company to own the trademark Nawras for telecom services and another company to own the same trademark for tourism services. For this reason, stopping someone from registering a domain name just because someone owns the trademark over it gives the trademark owner rights beyond what is given by trademark law itself. This restriction is found in Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE.

The prohibition against the registration of tribe names is probably unique to countries in the Gulf. This is different from the prohibition against the registration of the names of celebrities because not all tribes are famous, and it is strange because the prohibition can apply in some places even if the person who wishes to register belongs to that tribe. In places where the prohibition only applies if the registrant does not belong to that tribe or only applies if the registrant does not have the permission of the tribe, the restriction would clearly be made to protect internet users from being misrepresented. This restriction is found in Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi.

A lot of GCC countries also ban domain names that are made up of geographical locations. This prohibition includes names of countries, such as INDIA, names of cities, such as LONDON, and names of areas, such as ARABIA. Prohibiting the registration of locations within the country itself is very reasonable as registering something like Dhofar.om might suggest an affiliation with the local municipality or other public authorities. However, prohibiting the registration of foreign locations is more difficult to justify because it is unlike that registering, for example, Africa.kw, would make people assume that this website has an official status anywhere outside Kuwait. This restriction is found in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi, and the UAE.

Oman also has the strange restriction against the registration of generic English language words, which is a unique restriction not found in any other GCC country. Under this restriction, it is not allowed to register generic words such as HOTEL, CAR, and RESERVATION. It is not clear why this justification exists, as there is no technical, moral, and legal reason for banning these names. Even though I do not agree with the prohibition against the registration of trademarks in cases where there is no confusion, such a restriction would make more sense than banning all generic English words. This restriction is also peculiar because it only applies to English language words, while the Arabic equivalents for these words are not restricted. For example, book.om might be restricted, but kitab.om is not. Also, the restriction only applies to individual words but not a combination of them. For example, white.om and book.om are both restricted, but whitebook.om is not. This is probably the most pervasive of all restrictions because it puts substantial restrictions on the options available for Omani domain registrations.

Luckily, even though the restrictions imposed on some of these names are not reasonable, the prohibition in most cases is not absolute, and it is possible to make a formal request to the authorities to grant the registrant an exception to register the name. In Oman, this is stated in Article 6 of the Domain Name Regulations. However, the prohibition process is not transparent and a potential registrant who finds that a domain name is unavailable might automatically assume that it is unavailable because someone already registered and not because it is a restricted name. Of course, it is possible to use a WHOIS service to verify the actual status of the domain name, but not all users would know about the existence of such tools.

While the restrictions imposed on Omani domain names appear to be more significant than most other GCC domain names, it must be acknowledged that Omani domain names are more susceptible to abuse than others due the confusing similarity between the .om ccTLD and the .com TLD, which makes Omani domain names extremely attractive for typosquatters and web criminals.  It is reasonable for the Omani authorities to take additional measures to protect web users in Oman and abroad from the potential misuse of Omani domain names, but that should not go to a degree that unreasonably limits the benefit of these domain names to local users.

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