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Use (and misuse) of '.org.uk' web addresses
with suggestions for tightening up the rules

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A "web address" is also called a "domain name" - example: www.asa.org.uk  
Normally you can't access it unless it's "hosted" - as a website.
So, to set up a website, you need to :

  1. purchase a domain name, and
  2. purchase a hosting service

Motives - Some commercial (for-profit) owners of ".org.uk" websites are exploiting the rules and deliberately misleading people.  However, others have good intentions.  We're not wishing to tar them all with the same brush.

Computer mouse (courtesy of SCRAN)

When you look at websites which have an .org.uk (or .org) suffix, most people expect them to be not-for-profit (NFP) organisations - such as charities or professional bodies.  However, occasionally you find one that's a commercial company.  This is a misuse of .org.uk - and it can be quite misleading.

We've encountered this issue with several organisations :

In the early days of the Web (=1994+), commercial organisations weren't allowed to use ".org" at the end of their web address - they had to use ".co. ..." (eg ".co.uk") or ".com".

Subsequently, the rules were relaxed in some countries.  However, use of ".org" and ".org.uk" by commercial organisations is frowned upon by most commentators.

Most people still interpret ".org" and ".org.uk" as meaning that the organisation concerned is not-for-profit.

People often confuse ".org.uk" with ".gov.uk".  Sites with a ".gov" or ".gov.uk" suffix are also not-for-profit, but they're part of government - eg www.homeoffice.gov.uk  

ASA logo

In 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) twice upheld complaints about a commercial UK deed poll service website (which used an .org.uk suffix).  The ASA decided the site gave a misleading impression that it was an official government website.  The ASA's adjudications   related mainly to the use of the word "official".  However, we feel the company's ".org.uk" web address contributed to the misleading impression.

With a reputable company like EasyFundraising, these issues are not a major problem.

However, with less reputable commercial organisations (like "Air Ambulance Service") their use of ".org.uk" is part of their scam.  We feel the regulators should tackle this problem - by tightening up the rules.  Below, we describe Nominet's potential role in this.


Note:  This is not a moan about Nominet - we've found them to be very helpful.

Nominet is the official body in charge of all the domain names (in other words, web addresses) which end in ".uk".  See Wikipedia's page on the .uk domain  

The ".uk" suffix is known as an "Internet country code top-level domain" (a TLD or ccTLD).

Web addresses ending in ".uk" include:  ".gov.uk", ".org.uk", ".co.uk" and ".me.uk".
The "gov", "org", "co" and "me" components of the suffixes are known as second-level domains (SLDs).

Nominet's status:  Established in 1996, Nominet is a private, British, not-for-profit membership company, limited by guarantee.  It's not part of government, but it is classified as a regulator.  This type of legal status is unusual.
The status of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is similar.

.org.uk web addresses (=domain names)

CharityBags is concerned about the misuse (abuse) of .org.uk domain names.

xStatistics:Nominet say there are around 500,000 .org.uk domain names registered (at August 2011).
Nominet's Rules   (available on their website) state :

Section 8.2 of their Rules puts flesh on the bones :

"Registrants in .org.uk are intended to be not-for-profit or public service enterprises, and a Third Level Domain within this SLD is intended to be related to these enterprises and their activities.  These may include, as non-exhaustive examples, charities, trades unions, political parties, community groups, educational councils, and professional institutions."

Most people would expect that Nominet could enforce this rule.  However, Nominet say that this "intended" purpose for ".org.uk" is merely a recommendation.  They say they can't take action against any .org.uk registrant (=owner) who fails to follow this categorisation rule (the "SLD purpose").  Apparently this is because it's not in the Terms and conditions (T&Cs) when you purchase a web address.

We feel this is an anomaly - an unsatisfactory situation which is allowing a number of scams to be more successful than they would have been - if they had been forced to use a ".co.uk" suffix.

xStatistics:At a wild guess, we'd estimate that around 1 to 2% (?) of current .org.uk domain names don't comply with the SLD purpose stated above.  Some of these are scams and frauds - where the use of .org.uk gives them spurious, insidious credibility.

.me.uk web addresses (=domain names)

We've discovered that Nominet treat ".me.uk" differently in their terms and conditions (T&Cs).  We feel this is a precedent which could be applied to ".org.uk".

Nominet's rule on .me.uk is as follows :

Nominet treat this ".me.uk" purpose as mandatory (rather than recommended).  So, when they encounter an already-registered ".me.uk" domain name which is not a personal name (ie a named individual), they contact the owner (the registrant) and insist that it is amended so it becomes a personal name.  If this is not done, Nominet will suspend (and ultimately cancel) the domain name.

.org.uk - tightening up the rules

In general, the definitions of the .org.uk and .co.uk suffixes are clear-cut.
Normally it's easy to decide which category (SLD suffix) is appropriate for an organisation.

We've suggested to Nominet that they change their rules (T&Cs) so that .org.uk names are treated in the same strict way as .me.uk - so that compliance with the declared SLD purpose is mandatory - rather than just a recommendation.

Air Ambulance Service logo
Misleading logo of
"Air Ambulance Service"
(clothing collection scam)
with .org.uk web address

If such a change were introduced, we accept that it may be impractical to vet at the registration stage.

Also we're not suggesting that Nominet should have to check each-and-every name later (pro-actively).

However, we feel it would be reasonable to expect them to investigate an .org.uk domain name if a complaint were made.  This could result in suspension - and ultimately cancellation - of the domain name.

This is analogous to the action taken by EasyFundraising in mid-2010 when they terminated Air Ambulance Service's membership - after they received complaints that Air Ambulance Service was commercial (rather than not-for-profit).

It's also analogous to powers exercised by the CIC Regulator   and the Company Investigations (CI)   branch of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Charity umbrella organisations

We feel it would be helpful if some of these organisations produced recommendations on the use of ".org" and ".org.uk".  We have in mind the Cabinet Office (charities section), Charity Commission, Fundraising Standards Board, Institute of Fundraising and NCVO.

Related pages

Example (charitable clothing collection fraud) :
'The Drops of Help' (TDOH) - www.tdoh.org.uk

Below: Images of a clothing collection bag from 'The Drops of Help' (TDOH).
They refer to their website: www.tdoh.org.uk
The ".org.uk" in the name of their website contributed to the misleading impression that they were a charity and/or were donating to charities.

They fraudulently collected £000's of clothes.
Eventually they were prosecuted (Dec 2012) - and the company was closed down.
See the A-Z list of collectors page for details.

The DRops of Help Ltd

Article by Australian Community Workers Association (ACWA)

Australian Community Workers Association (ACWA) logo (our thanks to the ACWA) 251w

Website: www.acwa.org.au  

Established in 1970, the Association is "... the national body for over 500,000 hard working community work practitioners in Australia".  They publish a quarterly magazine - called "Unity".

On page 12 of their Unity magazine: Winter edition 2012   (a PDF file) there's a thought-provoking article headed:
"Around the globe: A new [web] domain for not-for-profits?".

The article describes proposals for a new web address suffix: ".ngo" (meaning Non-Governmental Organisation).  They also discuss the use of .org in website names - and they refer to our CharityBags web page on this.  Below is an extract from their article (our thanks to the ACWA) :

"... Nonproft websites are usually signalled by the
domain .org, although some, for convenience, or because their name
is similar to another nonproft, have opted for the .com domain.  While
nonprofts on occasions take up the option to use .com, the reverse is
not available for commercial organisations unless it is trying to pass
itself of as a nonproft organisation.  An interesting article explaining
this misleading practice in the UK can be read on
http://www.charitybags.org.uk ..."