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Is the new Whois policy group already doomed to fail?

Kevin Murphy, July 24, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization has set itself extremely aggressive, some might say impossible, targets for its emergency Whois policy work.

The GNSO Council on Thursday approved the charter for a new working group that will attempt to come up with a consensus policy for how to amend the Whois system in light of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

But the vote was not unanimous — three of the six Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group councilors abstained largely because they think intellectual property interests have managed to capture the discussion before it has begun.

The three abstentions were independent consultant Ayden Ferdeline, cybersecurity policy researcher Tatiana Tropina, and privacy consultant Stephanie Perrin.

Tropina said during the Thursday meeting: “I cannot vote ‘yes’ for a document that in my opinion has parts that are not properly worded and, instead of setting the scope of the EPDP [Expedited Policy Development Process] work, set up multiple possibilities to get the work sidetracked.”

She and Ferdeline pointed specifically to section J of the approved charter (pdf), which addresses “reasonable access” to non-public Whois data.

This is the part of the policy work that will decide whether, and to what extent, entities such as trademark owners and cybersecurity researchers will be able to peek behind the curtain of post-GDPR personal data redactions and see who actually owns domain names.

There are several “gating” questions that the working group must answer before it gets to J, however, such as: what data should be collected by registrars, how data transfer to registries should be handled, and are the reasons for this data to be collected all valid?

But when it comes to section J, the abstaining NCSG councilors reckon that the Intellectual Property Community has managed to sneak in the notion that its members should get access to private data as a fait accompli. Section J reads in part:

What framework(s) for disclosure could be used to address (i) issues involving abuse of domain name registrations, including but not limited to consumer protection, investigation of cybercrime, DNS abuse and intellectual property protection, (ii) addressing appropriate law enforcement needs, and (iii) provide access to registration data based on legitimate interests not outweighed by the fundamental rights of relevant data subjects?

Ferdeline said in his abstention:

I believe that Section J includes, first and foremost, questions that unnecessarily expand the scope of this EPDP and put perceived answers — rather than genuine, open ended questions — into this important document. Overall I think this section of the charter’s scope is unnecessary and will not allow the EPDP team to complete their work in a timely manner.

Tropina said J “poses the questions that, first of all, imply by default that issues related to intellectual property protection and consumer protection require the disclosure of personal data”, adding that she was bewildered that IP interests had been lumped in with security concerns:

This wording fails me: as I am criminal lawyer working in the field of frameworks for cybercrime investigation, I do not see why cybercrime investigations are separated from law enforcement needs and go to the same basket with intellectual property protection as they are on a completely different level of legitimate demands

In short, the newly approved EPDP charter has been framed in such a way as to make discussions extremely fractious from the outset, pitting privacy interests against those of the trademark lobby on some of the most divisive wedge issues.

This is problematic given that the working group has an extremely aggressive schedule — its members have not yet even been named and yet it expects to produce its Initial Report shortly after ICANN 63, which ends October 25 this year.

It’s an absurdly short space of time to resolve questions that have dogged ICANN for almost two decades.

Will this pressure to come to agreement against the clock work in favor of the trademark community, or will it doom the policy-making process to deadlock?

Attempting to steer the WG through this minefield will be Kurt Pritz, who was confirmed by the Council as its neutral chair on Thursday, as DI first reported a week ago.

The make-up of the group has also proved contentious.

While it is a GNSO process that would lead to a Consensus Policy binding on all gTLD registries and registrars, the decision has been made to bring in voices from other areas of the community, such as the Country Code Names Supporting Organization, which will not be directly affected by the resulting policy.

There will be 29 members in total, not counting the non-voting chair.

The GNSO gets 18 of these seats at the table, comprising: three registries, three registrars, two IPC members, two ISPs, two Business Constituency members, six NCSG members (which, I imagine would be split between the privacy-focused NCUC and more IP-friendly NPOC).

But also joining the group on an equal footing will be two members of the Root Server System Advisory Committee (I’ve no idea why), two from the Security and Stability Advisory Committee, two from the ccNSO, two from the At-Large Advisory Committee and three from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The actual individuals filling these seats will be named by their respective constituencies in the next few days, ahead of the first WG meeting July 30.

It has been said that these people could expect to devote north of 30 hours a week (unpaid of course, though any necessary travel will be comp’d) to the discussions.

auDA chair defends $9 million windfall as no-confidence vote looms

Kevin Murphy, July 18, 2018, Domain Policy

The chair of .au registry auDA has appealed to its membership for calm ahead of a vote of no confidence in himself, the CEO, and two of his fellow directors.

Chris Leptos yesterday defended the AUD 12 million ($9 million) windfall the organization has received as a result of its transition from long-term registry back-end Neustar to rival Afilias.

By opening the back-end contract to competition, and going with a bid far cheaper than the incumbent’s historical pricing, auDA saved itself a tonne of cash.

Some members reckon the money, which has been placed in a “marketing and innovation fund”, should have instead be returned to registrants via far lower prices for .au domains.

Leptos said the money was better used to promote .au rather than disappearing to the coffers of the back-end provider, writing;

What is most surprising to me is that a small number of members are criticising the new $12 million Marketing and Innovation Fund that will be used to grow the .au namespace. The fact is that auDA now has more funds, and those funds are being ploughed back into lower wholesale prices, and programs that will benefit participants in the .au namespace, rather than benefiting the private owners of the former registry operator. On any reasoned analysis, this is a good thing.

He assured disgruntled members that their concerns about this and other matters are being listened to, but noted the diversity of views among the membership.

Some members say auDA is not listening to their concerns. I can assure you that auDA is listening to its members and stakeholders at both management level and board level. The reality, however, is that auDA needs to balance the requirements of many members and stakeholders who disagree among themselves.

Leptos and two other directors are facing a vote to fire them from the board on July 27. CEO Cameron Boardman faces a no-confidence vote the same day,

The meeting was scheduled following a petition of members orchestrated at Grumpier.com.au, which managed to get signatures from over 5% of auDA’s then 320-odd members.

The Grumpies are currently trying to crowd-fund AUD 4,650 to pay for legal and other fees associated with this meeting. At time of writing, they’re about half-way there.

They’re also unhappy with auDA’s transparency, and with moves such as the currently delayed plan to sell direct second-level .au domains.

Leptos yesterday urged members to vote against the four resolutions, saying that the organization should not be “distracted” from implementing reforms recently mandated by the Australian government following a review.

auDA recently received 955 new membership applications — a four-fold increase in its member base — largely as a result of hundreds of sign-ups from staff at Afilias and the largest .au registrars. These people will not be approved in time to vote at the July 27 meeting.

Pritz to be named chair of Whois group

Kevin Murphy, July 16, 2018, Domain Policy

Former ICANN senior vice president Kurt Pritz is expected to be named chair of the group tasked with reforming Whois in the post-GDPR world.

Sources familiar with the situation tell DI that Pritz was selected from three candidates who put themselves forward for the grueling policy-making task.

I’m told that choice was made by GNSO Council’s leadership and selection committee (minus Pritz’s wife, Donna Austin, who recused herself) and will have to be confirmed by the full Council when it meets this Thursday.

Pritz would chair the GNSO’s first-ever Expedited Policy Development Process working group, which is expected to provide an ICANN community response to ICANN org’s recent, top-down Temporary Specification for Whois.

The Temp Spec, written by ICANN in response to the GDPR privacy law, is the thing that is contractually forcing all gTLD registries and registrars to redact personal information from their public Whois records.

Because it’s temporary, it will expire May 24 next year, one year after it came into effect.

The EPDP will put the force of community consensus behind the policy that replaces it, but it’s unlikely to differ a great deal from the Temp Spec, so it would be unwise to get your hopes up that Whois will return to pre-GDPR levels of accessibility — ICANN policy cannot overrule the law.

The EPDP chair’s job is expected to be extremely taxing. During the recent ICANN meeting in Panama, it was said that regular, non-chair working group members could be expected to commit as much as 30 hours a week to the project.

ICANN expects that the EPDP’s core work should be complete before ICANN 63, which begins October 20, with its final report due next February.

Given that the ICANN community has failed to come to much consensus on anything Whois related for two decades, these are extremely aggressive targets.

To maintain focus, the EPDP group is going to be kept relatively small, but there’s still bickering about the make-up of the group, with non-commercial interests upset the commercial side of house is getting more representation.

The chair’s role was therefore potentially controversial — neutrality was seen as a key quality when ICANN advertised the gig a couple of weeks ago.

Pritz currently works for the .art new gTLD registry operator UK Creative Ideas, so technically he would be in the Registries Stakeholder Group.

But he’s also one of the key architects of the new gTLD program, ICANN’s point man on the application process before his resignation in late 2012, so he has extensive experience herding cats in a relatively neutral way.

Since then, he’s had stints as a consultant and as executive director of the Domain Name Association.

Plural gTLDs to be banned over confusion concerns

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Policy

Singular and plural versions of the same word are likely to be banned as coexisting gTLDs in future.

The ICANN community working group looking at rules for subsequent application rounds reckons having both versions of the same word online — something that is happening with more than 30 gTLDs currently — leads to “consumer confusion” and should not be permitted.

It’s one of the surprisingly few firm recommendations in the Initial Report on the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process, which says:

If there is an application for the singular version of a word and an application for a plural version of the same word in the same language during the same application window, these applications would be placed in a contention set, because they are confusingly similar. An application for a single/plural variation of an existing TLD would not be permitted.

It adds that the mere addition of an S should not be disqualifying; .news would not be considered the plural of .new, for example.

Interestingly, the recommendation is based on advice received from existing registries, many of which fought for singular/plural coexistence during the 2012 round and already operate many such string pairs.

According to my database, these are the 15 plural/singular English string pairs (there are more if you include other languages) currently live in the DNS root:

.careers/.career
.photo/.photos
.work/.works
.cruise/.cruises
.review/.reviews
.accountant/.accountants
.loan/.loans
.auto/.autos
.deal/.deals
.gift/.gifts
.fan/.fans
.market/.markets
.car/.cars
.coupon/.coupons
.game/.games

Some of them are being managed by the same registries; others by competitors.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the newfound consensus that these pairs are confusing represents an attempt by 2012-round registries to slam the door behind them, if for no other reason than to avoid chancers trying to extort money from them by applying for plural or singular versions of other strings they currently manage.

But at an ICANN policy level, the plurals issue was indeed a gaping hole in the 2012 round.

All such clashes were resolved by String Confusion Objections, but only if one of the applicants chose to file such an objection.

These rulings mostly came down on the side of coexistence, but sometimes did not — .kid, .pet and .web were among those placed in direct contention with plural equivalents following aberrant SCO decisions.

Euro-Whois advice still as clear as mud

Kevin Murphy, July 6, 2018, Domain Policy

European privacy chiefs have again weighed in to the ongoing debate about GDPR and Whois, offering another thin batch of vague advice to ICANN.

The European Data Protection Board, in its latest missive (pdf), fails to provide much of the granular “clarity” ICANN has been looking for, in my view.

It does offer a few pieces of specific guidance, but it seems to me that the general gist of the letter from EDPB chair Andrea Jelinek to ICANN CEO Goran Marby is basically: “You’re on your own buddy.”

If the question ICANN asked was “How can we comply with GDPR?” the answer, again, appears to be generally: “By complying with GDPR.”

To make matters worse, Jelinek signs off with a note implying that the EDPB now thinks that it has given ICANN all the advice it needs to run off and create a GDPR-compliant accreditation system for legitimate access to private Whois data.

The EDPB is the body that replaced the Article 29 Working Party after GDPR came into effect in May. It’s made up of the data protection authorities of all the EU member states.

On the accreditation discussion — which aims to give the likes of trademark owners and security researchers access to Whois data — the clearest piece of advice in the letter is arguably:

the personal data processed in the context of WHOIS can be made available to third parties who have a legitimate interest in having access to the data, provided that appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure that the disclosure is proportionate and limited to that which is necessary and the other requirements of GDPR are met, including the provision of clear information to data subjects.

That’s a fairly straightforward statement that ICANN is fine to go ahead with the creation of an accreditation model for third parties, just as long as it’s quite tightly regulated.

But like so much of its advice, it contains an unhelpful nested reference to GDPR compliance.

The letter goes on to say that logging Whois queries should be part of these controls, but that care should be taken not to tip off registrants being investigated by law enforcement.

But it makes no effort to answer Marby’s questions (pdf) about who these legit third-parties might be and how ICANN might go about identifying them, which is probably the most important outstanding issue right now.

Jelinek also addresses ICANN’s lawsuit against Tucows’ German subsidiary EPAG, and I have to disagree with interpretations of its position published elsewhere.

The Register’s Kieren McCarthy, my Chuckle Brother from another Chuckle Mother, reckons the EDPB has torpedoed the lawsuit by “stating clearly that it cannot force people to provide additional ‘admin’ and ‘technical’ contacts for a given domain name”.

Under my reading, what it actually states is that registrants should be able to either use their own contact data, or anonymized contact information identifying a third party, in these records.

The EDPB clearly anticipates that admin and technical contacts can continue to exist, as long as they contain non-personal contact information such as “admin@example.com”, rather than “kevin@example.com”.

That’s considerably more in line with ICANN’s position than that of Tucows, which wants to stop collecting that data altogether.

One area where EDPB does in fact shoot down ICANN’s new Whois policy is when it comes to data retention.

The current ICANN contracts make registrars retain data for two years, but the EDPB notes that ICANN does not explain why or where that number comes from (I hear it was “pulled out of somebody’s ass”).

The EDPB says that ICANN needs to “re-evaluate the proposed data retention period of two years and to explicitly justify and document why it is necessary”.

Finally, the EDPB weighs in on the issue of Whois records for “legal persons” (as opposed to “natural persons”). It turns out their Whois records are not immune to GDPR either.

If a company lists John Smith and john.smith@example.com in its Whois records, that’s personal data on Mr Smith and therefore falls under GDPR, the letter says.

That should provide a strong incentive for registries and registrars to stop publishing potentially personal fields, if they’re still doing so.