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ICANN just gave a company a new gTLD for free

Kevin Murphy, September 10, 2015, 09:45:34 (UTC), Domain Policy

The Tor Project Inc, a Massachusetts non-profit software maker, just got a new gTLD reserved for its own exclusive use, by ICANN, for free.

Tor did this without engaging in the ICANN new gTLD program, paying any ICANN application fees, or following any of the rules in the ICANN Applicant Guidebook.

It basically circumvented the entire ICANN process, and it only took six months from asking.

Neat trick, right?

Tor develops the software that creates the Tor “anonymity network” used by people who wish to obfuscate their internet usage (legal or otherwise) by routing their traffic via a series of proxies or relays.

The free software, which plugs into browsers, uses meaningless, hashed “.onion” domains because the routing method is known as “onion routing”.

IANA, an ICANN department, last night placed .onion on its list of Special Use Domains, meaning it cannot be delegated to the DNS.

If anyone were to apply for it today — assuming that were possible — they’d be out of luck. It seems .onion now has the same protected status as .example and .localhost.

The reservation was made at the instruction of the Internet Engineering Task Force, which published a new Internet Draft reserving the .onion gTLD for use with Tor.

An Internet Draft is a “work in progress” standards track document with a six-month shelf life, not yet a finalized Request For Comments (RFC).

This one was written by engineers from Tor and Facebook.

The Internet Engineering Steering Group, the IETF’s coordinating body, approved the draft last week.

Of the 13 IESG members who voted on the document, the first draft of which was published six months ago, five voted “Yes”, seven offered “No Objection” and only one abstained.

The abstainer, Barry Leiba, standards guru at Huawei Technologies, wrote:

I believe the IETF shouldn’t be involved with registering special-use TLDs for things that were used outside of IETF protocols, and should not be wading into territory that belongs to ICANN. I know there are a bunch of other such TLDs that people/organizations would have us snag for them, and I very much want to avoid doing a batch of others.

That said, I well understand the deployed code involved and the importance of keeping things working in this case, and I don’t want to stand in the way. So I’m standing aside with an “Abstain” ballot.

The logic behind the reservation is that if ICANN were to delegate .onion to somebody else (for example, The Onion) there would be a risk that the improved privacy offered by Tor would be compromised.

Voting in favor of the draft, Cisco engineer Alissa Cooper wrote:

Registering this name seems warranted in light of the potential security impact. We need to make our processes work for the Internet, not vice versa.

Another affirmative vote came from Oracle engineer Ben Campbell. He wrote:

This one took some soul searching. But I think the arguments have been made, and that on the whole this registration does more good than harm.

A number of IESG members suggested that the IETF should revisit and possibly amend the RFC in which it originally granted itself the power to reserve gTLDs.

That’s RFC6761, entitled “Special-Use Domain Names”, which dates to February 2013.

RFC6761 lays out a seven-point test that a string must pass before it can be considered “special use” and thereby reserved.

The tests cover whether humans, applications and various types of DNS software are expected to handle the string differently to a regular TLD.

The RFC also notes:

The IETF has responsibility for specifying how the DNS protocol works, and ICANN is responsible for allocating the names made possible by that DNS protocol… Reservation of a Special-Use Domain Name is not a mechanism for circumventing normal domain name registration processes.

I think reasonable people could disagree on whether that’s what has just happened in the case of .onion.

Indeed, there was some discussion on the IETF’s “dnsop” working group mailing list about whether Tor was “squatting” .onion, and whether it was appropriate to reserve its chosen TLD string.

I wonder what kind of precedent this could set.

The Tor Project Inc is a Massachusetts non-profit company. It’s primarily funded by US government grants, according to its 2013 financial statements, the most recent available. It doesn’t sell .onion domains — they’re auto-generated by the software.

Part of the argument in favor of allowing the new Internet Draft is that .onion substantially pre-dates the creation of RFC6761 — it’s not an attempt to game the RFC.

Why wouldn’t that same argument apply to, for example, alternate root operator Name.Space, which has been offering hundreds of pseudo-gTLDs since 1996?

Name.Space could argue that its strings pre-date .onion by eight years, and that the security of its registrants and users could be compromised if ICANN were to delegate them to the DNS.

What about NameCoin, another alternate root provider? It also pre-dates RFC6761 and, like Tor, uses browser software to work around the DNS.

I don’t know enough about the IETF’s processes, to be honest, to say whether it would be forced to apply its .onion logic to these other namespaces. But it’s an interesting question.

And as somebody who has spent the last five years immersed in the minutiae of the rules ICANN has created to govern the allocation of words, it’s jarring to see those rules circumnavigated so completely.

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Comments (11)

  1. David Cake says:

    If it helps to understand the difference, the Tor Project haven’t at all got .onion ‘reserved for their own exclusive use’, they’ve got it reserved for their protocols exclusive use. And they have almost no control over who uses their protocol, and for what. They certainly can’t run a registry and collect fees, and they aren’t able to sign a contract with ICANN to control the use of that protocol. In essence, ICANN processes are for people who want a name delegated and want to create a central registry, the RFC 6761 process is primarily for people who don’t the name delegated and don’t want there to be a registry. The two aren’t really comparable.

    Most of the people I think involved in DNSOP group understand this distinction very clearly. Certainly groups like name.space could put their proposals to the IETF (and almost certainly get shot down as being ICANNs business), and other protocol development groups like NameCoin could put their proposals to the IETF.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      The new gTLD program had hundreds of defensive applications from brands that didn’t want the name delegated and didn’t want to be a registry.

      I’m sure they’d have leaped at the chance to get a TLD blocked forever from the root without paying half a million bucks a string, if that had been an alternative.

  2. Alexander Schubert says:

    Ok. So Tor is U.S. Government funded. ICANN is a U.S. based organization held in CLOSE reigns by the DOC.

    And both together try to advance “privacy” in the Internet usage? Obacure Meta-Data?
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tor_(anonymity_network)

    The DIA has probably nightmares over this.

  3. avri doria says:

    Well it was discussed, briefly, in the GNSO council during the IETF Last Call and no one saw a problem with special use names or this special use name.

    Good thing though, both ICANN and IETF use the same IANA, otherwise things might start to get confusing.

  4. Acro says:

    Do you need a special onion icon, Kevin? 😛

  5. Sam Lanfranco says:

    I have an uneasy feeling about this. Just finished writing an article with and about psiphon.ca , a quite similar Canadian not-for-profit venture. I would hope that what is happening here is not competitive advantage and positioning in a market, even if that market is for funding support, and users, and not user revenue. http://psiphon.ca

  6. Dan Kaminsky says:

    There’s a long precedent that namespaces actually being used in the field don’t enter DNS in the first place — .1 through .255, .local, dotless domains, etc. .onion has users, and it’s not that Tor gets it, it’s that nobody gets it.

    First law of the net is reliability. You don’t get to break stuff.

  7. Bill Stewart says:

    Should .uucp also be listed as a special-purpose domain name? It’s been around since long before ICANN, though it’s mostly obsolete these days.

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