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Registrars will miss GDPR deadline by a mile

Kevin Murphy, March 28, 2018, Domain Registrars

Registries and registrars won’t be able to implement ICANN’s proposed overhaul of the Whois system in time for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation coming into effect.
That’s according to an estimated timetable (pdf) sent by ICANN’s contracted parties to the organization this week.
While they feel confident that some elements of ICANN’s GDPR compliance plan could be in place before May 25 this year, when the law kicks in, they feel that other elements could take many months to design and roll out.
Depending on the detail of the finalized plan, we could be looking at the back end of 2019 before all the pieces have been put in place.
Crucially, the contracted parties warn that designing and rolling out a temporary method for granting Whois access to entities with legitimate interests in the data, such as police and trademark owners, could take a year.
And that’s just the stop-gap, Band-Aid hack that individual registries and registrars would put in place while waiting — “quarters (or possibly years), rather than months” — for a fully centralized ICANN accreditation solution to be put in place.
The outlook looks bleak for those hoping for uninterrupted Whois access, in other words.
But the timetable lists many other sources of potential delay too.
Even just replacing the registrant’s email address with a web form or anonymized forwarding address could take up to four months to put online, the contracted parties say.
Generally speaking, the more the post-GDPR Whois differs from the current model the longer the contracted parties believe it will take to roll out.
Likewise, the more granular the controls on the data, the longer the implementation window.
For example, if ICANN forces registrars to differentiate between legal and natural persons, or between European and non-European registrants, that’s going to add six months to the implementation time and cost a bomb, the letter says.
Anything that messes with EPP, the protocol underpinning all registry-registrar interactions, will add some serious time to the roll-out too, due to the implementation time and the contractual requirement for a 90-day notice period.
The heaviest workload highlighted in the letter is the proposed opt-in system for registrants (such as domain investors) who wish to waive their privacy rights in favor of making themselves more contactable.
The contracted parties reckon this would take nine months if it’s implemented only at the registrar, or up to 15 months if coordination between registries and registrars is required (and that timeline assumes no new EPP extensions are going to be needed).
It’s possible that the estimates in the letter could be exaggerated as part of the contracted parties’ efforts to pressure ICANN to adopt the kind of post-GDPR Whois they want to see.
But even if we assume that is the case, and even if ICANN were to finalize its compliance model tomorrow, there appears to be little chance that it will be fully implemented at all registrars and registries in time for May 25.
The letter notes that the timetable is an estimate and does not apply to all contracted parties.
As I blogged earlier today, ICANN CEO Goran Marby has this week reached out to data protection authorities across the EU for guidance, in a letter that also asks the DPAs for an enforcement moratorium while the industry and community gets its act together.
Late last year, ICANN also committed not to enforce the Whois elements of its contracts when technical breaches are actually related to GDPR compliance.

Privacy could be a million-dollar business for ICANN

Kevin Murphy, March 22, 2018, Domain Registrars

ICANN has set out the fees it plans to charge to officially accredit Whois proxy and privacy services, in the face of resistance from some registrars.
VP of finance Becky Nash told registrars during a session at ICANN 61 last week that they can expect to pay $3,500 for their initial accreditation and $4,000 per year thereafter.
Those are exactly the same fees as ICANN charges under its regular registrar accreditation program.
Registrars that also offer privacy should expect to see their annual ICANN flat fees double, in other words. Per-domain transaction fees would be unaffected.
The up-front application fee would be reduced $2,000 when the privacy service is to be offered by an accredited registrar, but it would stay at $3,500 if the company offering service is merely “affiliated” with the registrar.
Nash said all the fees have been calculated on a per-accreditation basis, independent of the volume of applications ICANN receives.
Director of registrar services Jennifer Gore said that while ICANN has not baked an estimate of the number of accredited providers into its calculations, registrars have previously estimated the number at between 200 and 250 companies.
That would put the upper end of annual accreditation fees at $1 million, with $875,000 up-front for initial applications.
Volker Greimann, general counsel of the registrar Key-Systems, pointed out during the session that many registrars give away privacy services for free or at cost.
“This just adds cost to an already expensive service that does not really make money for a lot of providers,” he said.
He suggested that the prices could lead to unexpected negative consequences.
“Pricing this in this region will just lead to a lot of unaccredited providers that will switch names every couple months, an underground that we don’t really want,” he said. “We want to have as many people on board as possible and the way to do that is to keep costs low.”
“Pricing them out of the market is not the way to attract providers to join this scheme,” he said.
Nash responded that registrars are forbidden under the incoming privacy/proxy policy from accepting registrations from unaccredited services.
She added that the fees have been calculated on a “cost-recovery” basis. Costs include the initial background checks, outreach, contract admin, compliance, billing and so on.
But some registrars expressed skepticism that the proposed fees could be justified, given that ICANN does not plan to staff up to administer the program.
Another big question is whether proxy/privacy services are going to continue to have value after May this year, when the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation kicks in.
The current ICANN plan for GDPR compliance would see individual registrants have all of their private information removed from the public Whois.
It’s not currently clear how many people and what kinds of people will continue to have access to unmasked Whois, so there are likely still plenty of cases where individuals might feel they need an extra layer of protection — if they live in a dictatorship and are engaged in rebellious political speech, for example.
There could also be cases where companies wish to mask their details ahead of, say, a product launch.
And, let’s face it, bad actors will continue to want to use privacy services on domains they intend to misuse.
The proxy/privacy policy came up through the formal GNSO Policy Development Process and was approved two years ago. It’s currently in the implementation phase.
According to a presentation from the ICANN 61 session, ICANN hopes to put the final implementation plan out for public comment by the end of the month.

Lawyer: GoDaddy Whois changes a “critical” contract breach

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy is in violation of its ICANN registrar contract by throttling access to its Whois database, according to a leading industry lawyer.
Brian Winterfeldt of the Winterfeldt IP Group has written to ICANN to demand its compliance team enforces what he calls a “very serious contractual breach”.
At issue is GoDaddy’s recent practice, introduced in January, of masking key fields of Whois when accessed in an automated fashion over port 43.
The company no longer shows the name, email address or phone number of its registrants over port 43. Web-based Whois, which has CAPTCHA protection, is unaffected.
It’s been presented as an anti-spam measure. In recent years, GoDaddy has been increasingly accused (wrongly) of selling customer details to spammers pitching web hosting and SEO services, whereas in fact those details have been obtained from public Whois.
But many in the industry are livid about the changes.
Back in January, DomainTools CEO Tim Chen told us that, even as a white-listed known quantity, its port 43 access was about 2% of its former levels.
And last week competing registrar Namecheap publicly complained that Whois throttling was hindering inbound transfers from GoDaddy.
Winterfeldt wrote (pdf) that “nothing in their contract permits GoDaddy to mask data elements, and evidence of illegality must be obtained before GoDaddy is permitted to throttle or deny
port 43 Whois access to any particular IP address”, adding:

The GoDaddy whitelist program has created a dire situation where businesses dependent upon unmasked and robust port 43 Whois access are forced to negotiate wholly subjective terms for access, and are fearful of filing complaints with ICANN because they are reticent to publicize any disruption in service, or because they fear retaliation from GoDaddy…
This is a very serious contractual breach, which threatens to undermine the stability and security of the Internet, as well as embolden other registrars to make similar unilateral changes to their own port 43 Whois services. It has persisted for far too long, having been officially implemented on January 25, 2018. The tools our communities use to do our jobs are broken. Cybersecurity teams are flying blind without port 43 Whois data. And illegal activity will proliferate online, all ostensibly in order to protect GoDaddy customers from spam emails. That is completely disproportionate and unacceptable

He did not disclose which client, if any, he was writing on behalf of, presumably due to fear of reprisals.
He added that his initial outreaches to ICANN Compliance have not proved fruitful.
ICANN said last November that it would not prosecute registrar breaches of the Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreements, subject to certain limits, as the industry focuses on becoming compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation.
But GoDaddy has told us that the port 43 throttling is unrelated to GDPR and to the compliance waiver.
Masking Whois data, whether over port 43 or not, is likely to soon become a fact of life anyway. ICANN’s current proposal for GDPR compliance would see public Whois records gutted, with only accredited users (such as law enforcement) getting access to full records.

Namecheap’s Move Your Domain Day actually works

Namecheap appears to have done a year’s worth of transfers in a single day, on its annual Move Your Domain Day promotion.
The company said this week that the promotion, which ran on March 6 this year, saw 20,590 domains transferred in from other registrars.
That’s pretty good compared to its usual transfer activity.
Registry report data shows that Namecheap usually gets 1,000 to 1,500 inbound transfers per month, across all gTLDs.
Move Your Domain Day was originally set up to capitalize on protests over GoDaddy’s support for the Stop Online Piracy Act in late 2011.
That year, when it benefited from greater publicity, the company said it saw over 40,000 transfers.
During the promotion, Namecheap discounts transfers and donates $1.50 per domain to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
This year, the EFF will be getting a check for $30,885.
Namecheap said earlier in the week that it was having problems processing inbounds from GoDaddy, which it claimed was throttling automated Whois queries, but said it would process the transfers regardless.

Namecheap accuses GoDaddy of delaying transfers

GoDaddy broke ICANN rules and US competition law by delaying outbound domain transfers yesterday, and not for the first time, according to angry rival Namecheap.
March 6 was Namecheap’s annual Move Your Domain Day, a promotion under which it donates $1.50 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for every inbound transfer from another registrar.
It’s a tradition the company opportunistically started back in 2011 specifically targeting GoDaddy’s support, later retracted, for the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA.
But yesterday GoDaddy was delivering “incomplete Whois information”, which interrupted the automated transfer process and forced Namecheap to resort to manual verification, delaying transfers, Namecheap claims.
“First and foremost this practice is against ICANN rules and regulations. Secondly, we believe it violates ‘unfair competition’ laws,” the company said in a blog post.
Whois verification is a vital part of the transfer process, which is governed by ICANN’s binding Inter-Registrar Transfer Policy.
GoDaddy changed its Whois practices in January. As an anti-spam measure, it no longer publishes contact information, including email addresses vital to the transfer process, when records are accessed automatically over port 43.
However, GoDaddy VP James Bladel told us in January that this was not supposed to affect competing registrars, which have their IP addresses white-listed for port 43 access via a system coordinated by ICANN.
Did GoDaddy balls up its new restrictive Whois practices? Or can the blame be shared?
Namecheap also ran into problems with GoDaddy throttling port 43 on its first Move Your Domain Day in 2011, but DI published screenshots back then suggesting that the company had failed to white-list its IP addresses with ICANN.
This time, the company insists the white-list was not an issue, writing:

As many customers have recently complained of transfer issues, we suspect that GoDaddy is thwarting/throttling efforts to transfer domains away from them. Whether automated or not, this is unacceptable. In preparation for today, we had previously whitelisted IPs with GoDaddy so there would be no excuse for this poor business practice.

Namecheap concluded by saying that all transfers that have been initiated will eventually go through. It also asked affected would-be customers to complain to GoDaddy.
The number of transfers executed on Move Your Domain Day over the last several years appears to be well into six figures, probably amounting to seven figures of annual revenue.

Tech giants gunning for AlpNames over new gTLD “abuse”

A small group of large technology companies including Microsoft and Facebook have demanded that ICANN Compliance take a closer look at AlpNames, the budget registrar regularly singled out as a spammers’ favorite.
The ad hoc coalition, calling itself the Independent Compliance Working Party, wrote to ICANN last week to ask why the organization is not making better use of statistical data to bring compliance actions against the small number of companies that see the most abuse.
AlpNames, the Gibraltar-based registrar under common ownership with new gTLD portfolio registry Famous Four Media, is specifically singled out in the group’s letter.
The letter, sourcing the August 2017 Statistical Analysis of DNS Abuse in gTLDs (pdf), says there “is a clear problem with one particular contracted party”.
AlpNames was the registrar behind over half of the new gTLD domains blacklisted by SpamHaus over the study period, for example, the letter states.
The tiny territory of Gibraltar also frequently ranks unusually highly on abuse lists due to AlpNames presence there, the letter and report say.
The ICWP letter also says that the four gTLDs .win, .loan, .top, and .link were used by over three quarters of abusive domains over the SADAG study period.
The letter calls the abuse rates “troublesome” and says:

We are alarmed at the levels of DNS abuse among a few contracted parties, and would appreciate further information about how ICANN Compliance is using available data to proactively address the abusive activity amongst this subset of contracted parties in order to improve the situation before it further deteriorates.

It goes on to wonder whether high levels of unaddressed abuse could amount to violations of new gTLD Registry Agreements and Registrar Accreditation Agreements, and to ask whether there any barriers to ICANN Compliance pursuing breach claims against such potential violations.
The ICWP comprises Adobe, DomainTools, eBay, Facebook, Microsoft and Time Warner. It’s represented by Fabricio Vayra of Perkins Coie.
Other than the letter (pdf), the Independent Compliance Working Party does not appear to have any web presence, and a spokesperson has not yet responded to DI’s request for more information.
The SADAG report also singled out Chinese registrar Nanjing Imperiosus Technology Co, aka DomainersChoice.com, as having particularly egregious levels of abuse, but noted that this abuse disappeared after ICANN terminated its RAA last year.
AlpNames has not to date had any public breach notices issued against it, but this is certainly not the first time it’s been singled out for public censure.
In November last year, ICANN’s Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice Review Team (CCT) named it in a report that claimed: “Certain registries and registrars appear to either positively encourage or at the very least willfully ignore DNS abuse.”
AlpNames seems to have been used often by abusers due to its bargain-basement, often sub-$1 prices — making disposable domains more cost effective — and its tool that allowed up to 2,000 domains to be registered simultaneously.
If not actively soliciting abusive behavior, these factors certainly don’t make abuse any more difficult.
But will ICANN Compliance take action in response to the criticism leveled by CCT and now ICWP?
The main problem with the ICWP letter, and the SADAG report it is based upon, is that the data it uses is now rather old.
The SADAG report sourced abuse databases only up to January 2017, a time when AlpNames’ total gTLD domains under management was at its peak of around three million names.
Since then, the company has been hemorrhaging DUM, losing hundreds of thousands of domains every month. At the end of November 2017, the most recent data compiled by DI shows that it was down to around 838,000 domains.
It’s quite possible that AlpNames’ customer base is no longer the den of abuse it once was, whether due to natural attrition or a proactive purge of bad actors.
A month ago, in a press release connected with a $5.4 million buy-out of an co-founder, AlpNames chairman Iain Roache said he has a “10-year strategic plan” to turn AlpNames into a “Tier-1” registrar and “bring the competition to the incumbents”.

Brandsight starts beta with “large corporations”

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2018, Domain Registrars

New brand management registrar Brandsight says it has started a beta test of its initial service.
Head of marketing Elisa Cooper tells DI the service is being tested by prospective clients at unspecified “large corporations”.
Brandsight Domain Name Management is a portfolio management system for large corporate domain controllers.
The company reckons its service is more streamlined than the competition, leveraging “big data” and modern user interface techniques to make brand managers’ lives easier.
Features include the ability to make sure domains are forwarding to where they’re supposed to. There’s also an industry news feed, according to a press release.
Brandsight was formed last year and staffed by former senior staffers from Fairwinds and MarkMonitor who thought they’d spotted a gap in the market.

Famous Four chair pumps $5.4 million into AlpNames to settle COO lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2018, Domain Registrars

Famous Four Media chair Iain Roache has bought out his former COO’s stake in AlpNames, its affiliated registrar, settling a lawsuit between the two men.
He’s acquired Charles Melvin’s 20% stake in the company for £3.9 million ($5.4 million), according to a press release.
A spokesperson confirmed that the deal settles a lawsuit in the companies’ home territory of Gibraltar, which we reported on in December.
Roache said in the press release that he has a plan to grow AlpNames into a “Tier 1 registrar”:
“I’ve got a 10 year strategic plan, which includes significant additional investment, to set the business up for future growth and success,” he said. “We’re going to bring the competition to the incumbents!”
AlpNames is basically the registrar arm of Famous Four, over the last few years supporting the gTLD portfolio registry’s strategy of selling domains in the sub-$1 range and racking up huge market share as a result.
But it’s on a bit of a slide, volume-wise, right now, as hundreds of thousands of junk domains are allowed to expire.
According to today’s press release, AlpNames has 794,000 gTLD domains under management. That’s a far cry from its peak of 3.1 million just under a year ago.
Seller Melvin, according to the press release, “has decided to pursue other interests outside of the domain name industry”.
It appears he left his COO job at Famous Four some time last year, and then sued Roache and CEO Geir Rasmussen (also an AlpNames investor) over a financial matter. Previous attempts to buy him out were rebuffed.
Last October, the Gibraltar court ruled that the defendants has supplied the court with “forged documents” in the form of inaccurately dated invoices between the registry and AlpNames.
The pair insisted to the court that the documents were an honest mistake and their lawyer told DI that there was no “forgery” in the usual sense of the word.
But it appears that Melvin’s split from the companies was less than friendly and the £3.9 million buyout should probably be viewed in that light.

Uniregistry changes emails after “renewal scam” complaints

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2018, Domain Registrars

Uniregistry has modified its marketing emails after customers complained they looked like fake renewal “scams”.
One customer contacted DI last week to say they were “horrified” to receive pitches for cheap SSL certificates that “read like some of the worst domain expiration scams of the past”.
The company recently started reselling Comodo’s SSL certs as part of its plan to broaden its customer base beyond its roots in the domain investor community.
But the way these certs were marketed left more than one customer with concerns. One email, which I’ve lightly redacted, read as follows:

Dear [CUSTOMER],
FINAL NOTICE – Your SSL certificate for your domain has expired. Take action and renew your certificate today through Uniregistry.
If your SSL certificate expires your website will display a warning informing customers the site is not secure.
We’ve teamed up with Comodo CA to offer our valued customers discounts up to 78% off when they renew their SSL certificate through us.
Visit https://www.comodo.com/uniregistry/ to take advantage of this offer and renew your certificate before it expires.
Domains at Risk :
[LIST OF DOMAINS]
Average validation time is less than an hour could take longer. Don’t let your certificate expire and put your business at risk. We are here to help, contact one of our SSL Specialist for more information or if you need additional support.
Thank you for choosing Uniregistry and Comodo CA

The reader said that while they have some domains with Uniregistry, their SSL certs had been bought elsewhere.
They added that the certs had not “expired” as the email claimed and said that they were not due to expire for months.
In addition, the email is quite clearly asking the customer to “renew” their cert via Uniregistry and Comodo, which should not be possible if the current cert was bought from a different Certificate Authority. It’s actually a solicitation to buy a new cert.
The scare-tactics wording is reminiscent of the old “slamming” scams carried out by Brandon Gray Internet Services, going under the moniker Domain Registry Of America and similar, until ICANN terminated its contract in 2014.
These “fake renewal” scams were delivered in the form of final-demand invoices, but were in fact solicitations to transfer domains, at a huge premium, from their current registrar to the scammer’s registrar.
A major difference between the DROA scam and Uniregistry’s marketing is that Uniregistry only contacted its existing customers. It was not spamming SSL owners at random.
Uniregistry told DI that the emails in question were part of an “A/B test” — when a company tests two emails to different sets of customers to see which one gets the best response rate — that were sent to “small number” of its customers.
Chief operating officer Kanchan Mhatre said in an email:

The initial content sent came from a previous campaign and it’s fair to say that it needed modifying to more accurately reflect what we were trying to convey. Based on the feedback received from you and other customers, we have modified the messaging and we are currently reviewing cert expiry date validation to ensure that we communicate with our customers in a timely manner.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has seriously limited DomainTools’ access to its customers’ Whois records, pissing off DomainTools.
DomainTools CEO Tim Chen this week complained to DI that its access to Whois has been throttled back significantly in recent months, making it very difficult to keep its massive database of domain information up to date.
Chen said that DomainTools is currently only able to access GoDaddy’s Whois over port 43 at about 2% of the rate it had previously.
He said that this has been going on for about six months and that the market-leading registrar has been unresponsive to its requests to have previous levels restored.
“By throttling access to the data by 98% they’re defeating the ability of security practitioners to get data on GoDaddy domains,” Chen said. “It’s particularly troublesome because they [GoDaddy] are such a big part of DNS.”
“We have customers who say the quality of GoDaddy data is just degrading across the board, either through direct look-ups or in some of the DomainTools products themselves,” he said.
DomainTools customers include security professionals trying to hunt down the source of attacks and intellectual property interests trying to locate pirates and cybersquatters.
GoDaddy today confirmed to DI that it has been throttling DomainTools’ Whois access, and said that it’s part of ongoing anti-spam measures.
In recent years there’s been an increase in the amount of spam — usually related to web design, hosting, and SEO — sent to recent domain registrants using email addresses harvested from new Whois records.
GoDaddy, as the market-share leader in retail domain sales, takes a tonne of flak from customers who, unaware of standard Whois practice, think the company is selling their personal information to spammers.
This kind of Twitter exchange is fairly common on GoDaddy’s feed:


While GoDaddy is not saying that DomainTools is directly responsible for this kind of activity, throttling its port 43 traffic is one way the company is trying to counter the problem, VP of policy James Bladel told DI tonight.
“Companies like [DomainTools] present a challenge,” he said. “While we may know these folks, we don’t know who their customers are.”
But that’s just a part of the issue. GoDaddy was also concerned about the amount of resources DomainTools was consuming, and its own future legal responsibilities under the European Union’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.
“When [Chen] says they’re down to a fraction or a percentage of what they had previously, well what they had previously was they were updating and archiving Whois almost in real time,” Bladel said. “And that’s not going to fly.”
“That is not only, we feel, not congruent with our responsibilities to our customers’ data, but it’s also, later on down the road, exactly the kind of thing that GDPR and other regulations are designed to stop,” he said.
GDPR is the EU law that, when it fully kicks in in May, gives European citizens much more rights over the sharing and processing of their private data.
Bladel added that DomainTools is still getting more Whois access than other parties using port 43.
“They have a level of access that is much, much higher than what they would normally have as a registrar,” he said, “but much lower than I think they want, because they want to effectively download and keep current the entirety of the Whois database.”
I’m not getting a sense from GoDaddy that it’s likely to backtrack on its changes.
Indeed, the company also today announced that it from January 25 it will start to “mask” key elements of Whois records when queried over port 43.
GoDaddy told high-value customers such as domainers today that port 43 queries will no longer return the registrant’s first name, last name, email address or phone number.
Bulk Whois users such as registrars (and, I assume, DomainTools) that have been white-listed via the “GoDaddy Port43 Process” will continue to receive full records.
Its web-based Whois, which includes a CAPTCHA gateway to prevent scraping, will continue to function as normal.
Bladel said that these changes are NOT related to GDPR, nor to the fact that ICANN said a couple months back that it would not enforce compliance with Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, subject to certain conditions.