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Is ICANN over-reacting to Whois privacy law?

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2018, 16:12:22 (UTC), Domain Policy

Is ICANN pushing the domain industry to over-comply with the European Union’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation privacy law?

Governments and plenty of intellectual property and business lobbyists think so.

After days of criticism from unhappy IP lawyers, ICANN’s public meeting in Puerto Rico last week was capped with a withering critique of the organization’s proposed plan for the industry to become GDPR compliant as pertains Whois.

The Governmental Advisory Committee, in unusually granular terms, picked apart the plan in its usual formal, end-of-meeting advice bomb, which focused on making sure law enforcement and IP owners continue to get unfettered Whois access after GDPR kicks in in May.

Key among the GAC’s recommendations (pdf) is that the post-GDPR public Whois system should continue to publish the email address of each domain registrant.

Under ICANN’s plan — now known as the “Cookbook” — that field would be obscured and replaced with a contact form or anonymized email address.

The GAC advised ICANN to “reconsider the proposal to hide the registrant email address as this may not be proportionate in view of the significant negative impact on law enforcement, cybersecurity and rights protection;”.

But its rationale for the advice is a little wacky, suggesting that email addresses under some unspecified circumstances may not contain “personal data”:

publication of the registrant’s email address should be considered in light of the important role of this data element in the pursuit of a number of legitimate purposes and the possibility for registrants to provide an email address that does not contain personal data.

That’s kinda like saying your mailing address and phone number aren’t personal data, in my view. Makes no sense.

The GAC advice will have won the committee friends in the Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency, which throughout ICANN 61 had been pressuring ICANN to check whether removing email addresses from public Whois was strictly necessary.

ICANN is currently acting as a non-exclusive middleman between community members and the 20-odd Data Protection Authorities — which will be largely responsible for enforcing GDPR — in the EU.

It’s running compliance proposals it compiles from community input past the DPAs in the hope of a firm nod, or just some crumbs of guidance.

But the BC and IPC have been critical that ICANN is only submitting a single, rather Draconian proposal — one which would eschew email addresses from the public Whois — to the DPAs.

In a March 13 session, BC member Steve DelBianco pressed ICANN CEO Goran Marby and other executives and directors repeatedly on this point.

“If they [the DPAs] respond ‘Yes, that’s sufficient,’ we won’t know whether it was necessary,” DelBianco said, worried that the Cookbook guts Whois more than is required.

ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey conceded that the Cookbook given to the DPAs only contains one proposal, but said that it also outlines the “competing views” in the ICANN community on publishing email addresses and asks for guidance.

But email addresses are not the only beef the GAC/IPC/BC have with the ICANN proposal.

On Thursday, the GAC also advised that legal entities that are not “natural persons” should continue to have their full information published in the public Whois, on the grounds that GDPR only applies to people, not organizations.

That’s contrary to ICANN’s proposal, which for pragmatic reasons makes no distinction between people and companies.

There’s also the question of whether the new regime of Whois privacy should apply to all registrants, or just those based in the European Economic Area.

ICANN plans to give contracted parties the option to make it apply in blanket fashion worldwide, but some say that’s overkill.

Downtime for Whois?

While there’s bickering about which fields should be made private under the new regime, there doesn’t seem to be any serious resistance to the notion that, after May, Whois will become a two-tier system with a severely depleted public service and a firewalled, full-fat version for law enforcement and whichever other “legitimate users” can get their feet in the door.

The problem here is that while ICANN envisions an accreditation program for these legitimate users — think trademark lawyers, security researchers, etc — it has made little progress towards actually creating one.

In other words, Whois could go dark for everyone just two months from now, at least until the accreditation program is put in place.

The GAC doesn’t like that prospect.

It said in its advice that ICANN should: “Ensure continued access to the WHOIS, including non-public data, for users with a legitimate purpose, until the time when the interim WHOIS model is fully operational, on a mandatory basis for all contracted parties”.

But ICANN executives said in a session on Thursday that the org plans to ask the DPAs for a deferral of enforcement of GDPR over Whois until the domain industry has had time to come into compliance while continuing to grant access to full Whois to police and special interests.

December appears to be the favored date for this proposed implementation deadline, but ICANN is looking for feedback on its timetable by this coming Friday, March 23.

But the IPC/BC faction are not stting on their hands.

Halfway through ICANN 61 they expressed support for a draft accreditation model penned by consultant Fred Felman, formerly of brand protection registrar MarkMonitor.

The model, nicknamed “Cannoli” (pdf) for some reason, unsurprisingly would give full Whois access to anyone with enough money to afford a trademark registration, and those acting on behalf of trademark owners.

Eligible accreditees would also include security researchers and internet safety organizations with the appropriate credentials.

Once approved, accredited Whois users would have unlimited access to Whois records for defined purposes such as trademark enforcement or domain transfers. All of their queries would be logged and randomly audited, and they could lose accreditation if found to be acting outside of their legitimate purpose.

But Cannoli felt some resistance from ICANN brass, some of whom pointed out that it had been drafted by just one part of the community

“If the community — the whole community — comes up with an accreditation model we would be proud to put that before the DPAs,” Marby said during Thursday’s public forum in Puerto Rico.

It’s a somewhat ironic position, given that ICANN was just a few weeks ago prepared to hand over responsibility for creating the first stage of the accreditation program — covering law enforcement — wholesale to the GAC.

The GAC’s response to that request?

It’s not interested. Its ICANN 61 communique said the GAC “does not envision an operational role in designing and implementing the proposed accreditation programs”.

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Comments (1)

  1. I’m not even convinced that the proposed ICANN model covers the requirement of “data frugality” (or sparsity). Depending on the implementation of the model, it might be going too far to even pass on this data to the registries, as they don’t really need this data themselves other than the nameservers.

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