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Registrars not happy with VeriSign abuse plans

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2011, 16:15:09 (UTC), Domain Registrars

VeriSign has been talking quietly to domain name registrars about its newly revealed anti-abuse policies for several months, but some are still not happy about its plans for .com malware scans.

The company yesterday revealed a two-pronged attack on domain name abuse, designed to counteract a perception that .com is not as secure a space as it should be.

One prong, dealing with law enforcement requests to seize domains, I covered yesterday. It’s already received criticism from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union.

The other is an attempt to introduce automatic malware scanning into the .com, .net and .name spaces, rather like ICM Registry has said it will do with all .xxx domains.

Unlike the daily ICM/McAfee service, VeriSign’s free scans will be quarterly, but the company intends to also offer a paid-for upgrade that would search domains for malware more frequently.

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

But some registrars are worried about the fading line between registrars, which today “own” the customer relationship, and the registries, which for the most part are hidden away in the cloud.

Go Daddy director of network abuse Ben Butler, asked about both of yesterday’s VeriSign proposals, said in a statement that they have “some merit”, but sounded several notes of caution:

This is going to make all registrars responsible for remediation efforts and negative customer-service clean up. The registrar at this point becomes the “middle man,” dealing with customers whose livelihood is being negatively impacted. As mentioned in their report, the majority of sites infected with malware were not created by the “bad guys.”

While there is an appeal process mentioned, it could take some time to get issues resolved, potentially leaving a customer’s website down for an extended period.

This could also create a dangerous situation, allowing registries to gain further control over registrars’ operations – as registrars have the relationship with the registrant, the registrar should be responsible for enforcing policies and facilitating remediation.

It has also emerged that VeriSign unilaterally introduced the malware scanning service as a mandatory feature of .cc and .tv domains – which are not regulated by ICANN – earlier this year.

The changes appear to have been introduced without fanfare, but are clearly reflected in today’s .tv registration policies, which are likely to form the basis of the .com policies.

Some registrars weren’t happy about that either.

Six European registrars wrote to VeriSign last month to complain that they were “extremely displeased” with the way the scanning service was introduced. They told VeriSign:

These changes mark the beginning of a substantive shift in the roles of registries regarding the monitoring and controlling of content and may lead to an increase of responsibility and liability of registries and registrars for content hosted elsewhere. As domain name registrars, we hold the position that the responsibilities for hosted content and the registration of a domain name are substantially different, and this view has been upheld in European court decisions numerous times. In this case, Verisign is assuming an up-front responsibility that surpasses even the responsibilities of a web hoster, and therefore opens the door to added responsibilities and legal liability for any form of abuse.

In the end, the registrar community will have to face the registrant backlash and criticism, waste countless hours of support time to explain this policy to the registrants and again every time they notice downtimes or loss of performance. These changes are entirely for the benefit of Verisign, but the costs are delegated to the registrants, the registrars and the hosting service providers.

The registrars were concerned that scanning could cause hosting performance hits, but VeriSign says the quarterly scan uses a virtual browser and is roughly equivalent to a single user visit.

They were also worried that the scans, which would presumably ignore robots.txt prohibitions on spidering, would be “intrusive” enough to potentially violate European Union data privacy laws.

VeriSign now plans to give all registrars an opt-out, which could enable them to avoid this problem.

It looks like VeriSign’s plans to amend the Registry-Registrar Agreement are heading for ICANN-overseen talks, so registrars may just be digging into a negotiating position, of course.

But it’s clear that there is some unease in the industry about the blurring of the lines between registries and registrars, which is only likely to increase as new gTLDs are introduced.

In the era of new gTLDs, and the liberalization of ICANN’s vertical integration prohibitions, we’re likely to see more registries having hands-on relationships with customers.

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