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Big changes at DomainTools as privacy law looms

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2018, 12:20:39 (UTC), Domain Services

Regular users of DomainTools should expect significant changes to their service, possibly unwelcome, as the impact of incoming European Union privacy law begins to be felt.

Professional users such as domain investors are most likely to be impacted by the changes.

The company hopes to announce how its services will be rejiggered to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation in the next few weeks, probably in February, but CEO Tim Chen spoke to DI yesterday in general terms about the law’s possible impact.

“There will be changes to the levels of service we offer currently, especially to any users of DomainTools that are not enterprises,” Chen said.

GDPR governs how personal data on EU citizens is captured, shared and processed. It deals with issues such as customer consent, the length of time such data may be stored, and the purposes for which it may be processed.

Given that DomainTools’ entire business model is based on capturing domain registrants’ contact information without their explicit consent, then storing, processing and sharing that data indefinitely, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the new law represents a possibly existential threat.

But while Chen says he’s “very concerned” about GDPR, he expects the use cases of his enterprise customers to be protected.

DomainTools no longer considers itself a Whois company, Chen said, it’s a security services company now. Only about 20% of its revenue now comes from the $99-a-month customers who pay to access services such as reverse Whois and historical Whois queries.

The rest comes from the 500-odd enterprise customers it has, which use the company’s data for purposes such as tracking down network abuse and intellectual property theft.

DomainTools is very much aligned here with the governments and IP lawyers that are pressing ICANN and European data protection authorities to come up with a way Whois data can still be made available for these “legitimate purposes”.

“We’re very focused on our most-important goal of making sure the cyber security and network security use cases for Whois data are represented in the final discussions on how this legislation is really going to land,” he said.

“There needs to be some level of access that is retained for uses that are very consistent with protecting the very constituents that this legislation is trying to protect from a privacy perspective,” he said.

The two big issues pressing on Chen’s mind from a GDPR perspective are the ability of the company to continue to aggregate Whois records from hundreds of TLDs and thousands of registrars, and its ability to continue to provide historical, archived Whois records — the company’s most-popular product after vanilla Whois..

These are both critical for customers responding to security issues or trying to hunt down serial cybersquatters and copyright infringers, Chen said.

“[Customers are] very concerned, because their ability to use this data as part of their incident response is critical, and the removal of the data from that process really does injure their ability to do their jobs,” he said.

How far these use cases will be protected under GDPR is still an open question, one largely to be determined by European DPAs, and DomainTools, like ICANN the rest of the domain industry, is still largely in discussion mode.

“Part of what we need to help DPAs understand is: how long is long enough?” Chen said. “Answering how long this data can be archived is very important.”

ICANN was recently advised by its lawyers to take its case for maintaining Whois in as recognizable form as possible to the DPAs and other European privacy bodies.

And governments, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, recently urged ICANN to continue to permit Whois access for “legitimate purposes”.

DomainTools is in a different position to most of the rest of the industry. In terms of its core service, it’s not a contracted party with ICANN, so perhaps will have to rely on hoping whatever the registries and registrars work out will also apply to its own offerings.

It’s also different in that it has no direct customer relationship with the registrants whose data it processes, nor does it have a contractual relationship with the companies that do have these customer relationships.

This could make the issue of consent — the right of registrant to have a say in how their data is processed and when it is deleted — tricky.

“We’re not in a position to get consent from domain owners to do what we do,” Chen said. “I think where we need to be more thoughtful is whether DomainTools needs to have a process where people can opt out of having their data processed.”

“When I think about consent, it’s not on the way in, because we just don’t have a way to do that, it’s allowing a way out… a mechanism where people can object to their data being processed,” he said.

How DomainTools’ non-enterprise customers and users will be affected should become clear when the company outlines its plans in the coming weeks.

But Chen suggested that most casual users should not see too much impact.

“The ability of anyone who has an interest in using Whois data, who needs it every now and then, for looking up a Whois record of a domain because they want to buy it as a domain investor for example, that should still be very possible after GDPR,” he said.

“I don’t think GDPR is aimed at individual, one-at-a-time use cases for data, I think it’s aimed at scalable abuse of the data for bad purposes,” he said.

“If you’re running a business in domain names and you need to get Whois at significant scale, and you need to evaluate that many domains for some reason, that’s where the impact may be,” he said.

Disclosure: I share a complimentary DomainTools account with several other domain industry bloggers.

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Comments (5)

  1. Wouter S. says:

    When I google my domain I find my personal information deposited online. Surely sending an email asking for permission cant be that hard.

    I think the issue of Chen is that he just wont like the answer. Which will probably be complete silence.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      There are over 300 million domains right now. That’s quite a lot of emails.

      • Wouter S. says:

        The alternative is trying to make a deal with the registrars. So people can opt in or out when they register a domain with them.

        I remember that Gandi (used to) have a checkbox for something similar. But I guess that only solves the problem for new domains.

        • Dan says:

          Most registrars offer a privacy addon to do this where the public info is replaced with the privacy service – so there is a solution to that, usually paid mind.

  2. gpmgroup says:

    Perhaps if DomainTools had been more thoughtful in the past there wouldn’t be as much interest in restricting access to WHOIS information today.

    It’s a shame because WHOIS is a great consumer protection tool.

Leave a Reply to Wouter S.