VeriSign’s request for a wide-ranging set of powers that would enable it to shut down .com and .net domain names that are suspected of abuse is already attracting criticism.
The proposals came in a Registry Services Evaluation Process request to ICANN that I reported on for The Register this morning.
It’s asking (pdf) to be able to create a new anti-abuse policy that would refocus many of the controls currently in the hands of registrars to the registry level instead.
The policy would “allow the denial, cancellation or transfer” of any VeriSign-managed domain if any any of these conditions were triggered:
(a) to protect the integrity, security and stability of the DNS;
(b) to comply with any applicable court orders, laws, government rules or requirements, requests of law enforcement or other governmental or quasi-governmental agency, or any dispute resolution process;
(c) to avoid any liability, civil or criminal, on the part of Verisign, as well as its affiliates, subsidiaries, officers, directors, and employees;
(d) per the terms of the registration agreement,
(e) to respond to or protect against any form of malware (defined to include, without limitation, malicious code or software that might affect the operation of the Internet),
(f) to comply with specifications adopted by any industry group generally recognized as authoritative with respect to the Internet (e.g., RFCs),
(g) to correct mistakes made by Verisign or any Registrar in connection with a domain name registration, or
(h) for the non-payment of fees to Verisign. Verisign also reserves the right to place upon registry lock, hold or similar status a domain name during resolution of a dispute;
As you can see, that’s a pretty broad range of justifications.
Notably, it would enable a domain to be canceled or transferred at the “requests of law enforcement or other governmental or quasi-governmental agency”, which would seem to circumvent the current practice of a court order being obtained before a domain is seized.
The question of what constitutes a “quasi-governmental agency” is also interesting. Is ICANN itself such a thing?
The policy would also enable a take-down “to avoid any liability, civil or criminal”, which seems to be just begging for VeriSign to be named spuriously in commercial lawsuits between .com registrants.
The RSEP also suggests that VeriSign plans to extend its hand of friendship to law enforcement agencies from outside the US:
Pilots with European Law Enforcement, Government CERTS and Registrars are planned, and other global test pilots will follow, to ensure global collaboration in the continuing development of the procedures.
Today, US agencies can get court orders instructing VeriSign to hand over domains. While imposing US law on .com owners from other countries is controversial, at least overseas registrants know where they stand.
Now VeriSign is talking about cooperating with European law enforcement agencies too.
At the risk of getting dangerously close to invoking Godwin’s Law, this brings us back to an old jurisdictional problem – what if the French police demand the seizure of a .com site selling Nazi memorabilia, which is illegal in France but legal in the US, for example?
Taking it a step further, what if VeriSign starts entertaining takedown requests from some of the world’s least pleasant theocracies, banana republics and dictatorships?
Half of .com could disappear overnight.
Since VeriSign has a business to run, that’s obviously not going to happen. So the company is going to have to draw a line somewhere, separating criminality from legitimate behavior and free speech.
I’m speculating wildly here, of course, but the RSEP doesn’t contain nearly enough detailed information about VeriSign’s proposed procedures to make a more informed analysis.
VeriSign knows what it is proposing is controversial. The RSEP says:
Registrants may be concerned about an improper takedown of a legitimate website. Verisign will be offering a protest procedure to support restoring a domain name to the zone.
The proposals have been made following many months of discussions between registries, registrars, law enforcement agencies and other community stakeholders.
It’s not entirely clear from VeriSign’s RSEP, which sometimes confusingly conflates the abuse policy with a separate proposed malware scanning service, how a takedown notice would be processed.
One likely reading is that VeriSign would act almost like a centralized clearinghouse for takedown requests, forwarding them to individual registrars for enforcement.
The registrars could be obliged by the terms of an amended Registry-Registrar Agreement to follow whatever process had been laid down.
There seems to be some concern in the ICANN community about this.
ICANN senior VP of stakeholder relations Kurt Pritz recently sent a document to PIR’s David Maher and Oversee.net’s Mason Cole outlining the procedure for amending the RRA.
The flowchart (pdf) describes a trilateral negotiation between the registry proposing the change, the Registrars Stakeholder Group and ICANN, with the ICANN board having the ultimate decision-making authority.
However this proceeds through ICANN, it’s going to cause some heated community debate.