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This is how AppDetex works

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2018, Domain Services

A small brand-protection registrar with a big friend caused quite a stir at ICANN 63 here in Barcelona this week, after accusing registrars for the second time of shirking their duties to disclose private Whois data to trademark owners.

AppDetex, which has close ties to Facebook, has sent something like 9,000 Whois requests to registrars over the last several months, then complained to ICANN last week that it only got a 3% response rate.

Registrars cried foul, saying that the company’s requests are too vague to action and sometimes seem farcical, suggesting an indiscriminate, automated system almost designed to be overly burdensome to them.

In chats with DI this week, AppDetex CEO Faisal Shah, general counsel Ben Milam and consultant Susan Kawaguchi claimed that the system is nowhere near as spammy as registrars think, then showed me a demo of their Whois Requester product that certainly seemed to support that claim.

First off, Whois Requester appears to be only partially automated.

Tucows had noted in a letter to ICANN that it had received requests related to domains including lincolnstainedglass.com and grifflnstafford.com, which contain strings that look a bit like the “Insta” trademark but are clearly not cybersquatting.

“That no human reviewed these domains was obvious, as the above examples are not isolated,” Tucows CEO Elliot Noss wrote.

“It is abundantly clear to us that the requests we received were generated by an automated system,” Blacknight CEO Michele Neylon, who said he had received similarly odd requests, wrote in his own letter.

But, according to AppDetex, these assumptions are not correct.

Only part of its service is automated, they said. Humans — either customers or AppDetex in-house “brand analysts” — were involved in sending out all the Whois requests generated via its system.

AppDetex itself does not generate the lists of domains of concern for its clients, they said. That’s done separately, using unrelated tools, by the clients themselves.

It’s possible these could be generated from zone files, watch services, abuse reports or something else. The usage of the domain, not just its similarity to the trademark in question, would also play a role.

Facebook, for example, could generate its own list of domains that contain strings matching, partially matching, or homographically similar to its trademarks, then manually input those domains into the AppDetex tool.

The product features the ability to upload lists of domains in bulk in a CSV file, but Kawaguchi told me this feature has never been used.

Once a domain has been input to main Whois Requester web form, a port 43 Whois lookup is automatically carried out in the background and the form is populated with data such as registrar name, Whois server, IANA number and abuse email address.

At this point, human intervention appears to be required to visually confirm whether the Whois result has been redacted or not. This might require also going to the registrar’s web-based Whois, as some registrars return different results over port 43 compared to their web sites.

If a redacted record is returned, users can then select the trademark at issue from a drop-down (Whois Requestor stores its’ customers trademark information) and select a “purpose” from a different drop-down.

The “purposes” could include things like “trademark investigation” or “phishing investigation”. Each generates a different piece of pre-written text to be used in the template Whois request.

Users can then choose to generate, manually approve, and send off the Whois request to the relevant registrar abuse address. The request may have a “form of authorization” attached — a legal statement that AppDetex is authorized to ask for the data on behalf of its client.

Replies from registrars are sent to an AppDetex email address and fed into a workflow tool that looks a bit like an email inbox.

As the demo I saw was on the live Whois Requester site with a dummy account, I did not get a view into what happens after the initial request has been sent.

Registrars have complained that AppDetex does not reply to their responses to these initial requests, which is a key reason they believe them frivolous.

Shah and Milam told me that over the last several months, if a registrar reply has included a request for additional information, the Whois Requester system has been updated with a new template for that registrar, and the request resent.

This, they said, may account for duplicate requests registrars have been experiencing, though two registrars I put this to dispute whether it fits with what they’ve been seeing.

The fact that human review is required before requests are sent out “just makes it worse”, they also said.

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Amazon offered $5 million of free Kindles for .amazon gTLD

Kevin Murphy, October 23, 2018, Domain Policy

Amazon offered South American governments $5 million worth of free Kindles, content and cloud services in exchange for their endorsement of its .amazon gTLD application, it has emerged.

The proposal, made in February, also included an offer of four years of free hosting up to a value of $1 million.

The sweeteners came during negotiations with the eight governments of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, which object to .amazon because they think it would infringe on their geographical and cultural rights.

Amazon has sought to reassure these governments that it will reserve culturally sensitive strings of their choice in .amazon, and that it will actively support any future applications for gTLDs such as .amazonas, which is the more meaningful geographic string in local languages.

I’ve reported on these offers before, but to my knowledge the offer of free Kindles and AWS credits has not been made public before. (UPDATE: Nope.)

According to a September letter from ACTO, published (pdf) this week, Amazon told it:

as an indication of goodwill and support for the people and governments of the Amazonian Region… [Amazon will] make available to the OTCA governments credits for the use of AWS services, Kindles preloaded with mutually agreed upon content, and similar Amazon.com services and products in an amount not to exceed $5,000,000.

Amazon also offered to set up a .amazon web site “to support the Amazonian people’s cultural heritage” and pay up to $1 million to host it for four years.

These kinds of financial sweeteners would not be without precedent.

The applicant for .bar wound up offering to donate $100,000 to fund a school in Montenegro, after the government noted the string match with the Bar region of the country.

The ACTO countries met in August to consider Amazon’s offer, but chose not to accept it.

However, they’re not closing off talks altogether. Instead, they’ve taken up ICANN on its offer to act as a facilitator of talks between Amazon and ACTO members.

The ICANN board of directors passed a resolution last month instructing CEO Goran Marby to “support the development of a solution” that would involve “sharing the use of those top-level domains with the ACTO member states”.

ACTO secretary general Jacqueline Mendoza has responded positively to this resolution (pdf) and invited Marby to ACTO headquarters in Brasilia to carry on these talks.

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US not happy with Donuts hiring Atallah

Kevin Murphy, October 22, 2018, Domain Policy

The US government appears to have reservations about Donuts’ recent hiring of ICANN bigwig Akram Atallah as its new CEO.

Speaking at a session of ICANN 63 here in Barcelona today, National Telecommunications and Information Administration head David Redl alluded to the recent hire.

Atallah was president of the Global Domains Division and twice interim CEO.

While most of Redl’s brief remarks today concerned internet security and Whois, he concluded by saying:

While the community has greatly improved ICANN’s accountability through the IANA stewardship transition process, there are still improvements to be made.

As one example, we need safeguards to ensure that ICANN staff and leadership are not only grounded ethically in their professional actions at ICANN, but also in their actions when they seek career opportunities outside of ICANN.

One potential fix could be “cooling off periods” for ICANN employees that accept employment with companies involved in ICANN activities and programs. This is an ethical way to ensure that conflicts of interest or appearances of unethical behavior are minimized.

ICANN faced similar scrutiny back in the 2011, when ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush pushed through the new gTLD program and almost immediately began working for a new gTLD applicant.

That was the same year Redl moved from being head of regulatory affairs at CTIA — lobbying for wireless industry legislation — to counsel to the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee — helping to craft wireless industry legislation.

Here are his remarks. Redl starts speaking at around the 38-minute mark.

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ICANN denies it’s in bed with trademark lawyers

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN chair Cherine Chalaby has strongly denied claims from non-commercial stakeholders that its attitude to Whois reform is “biased” in favour of “special interests” such as trademark lawyers.

In a remarkably fast reply (pdf) to a scathing October 17 letter (pdf) from the current and incoming chairs of the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, Chalaby dismissed several of the NCSG’s claims of bias as “not true”.

The NCSG letter paints ICANN’s efforts to bring Whois policy into line with the General Data Protection Regulation as rather an effort to allow IP owners to avoid GDPR altogether.

It even suggests that ICANN may be veering into content regulation — something it has repeatedly and specifically disavowed — by referring to how Whois may be used to combat “fake news”.

The “demonstrated intention of ICANN org has been to ensure the unrestrained and unlawful access to personal data demanded by special interest groups”, the NCSG claimed.

It believes this primarily due to ICANN’s efforts to support the idea of a “unified access model” — a way for third parties with “legitimate interests” to get access to private Whois data.

ICANN has produced a couple of high-level framework documents for such a model, and CEO Goran Marby has posted articles playing up the negative effects of an inaccessible Whois.

But Marby has since insisted that a unified access model is still very much an “if”, entirely dependent on whether the community, in the form of the Whois EPDP working group, decides there should be one.

That message was reiterated in Chalaby’s new letter to the NCSG.

The conversation on whether to adopt such a model must continue, but the outcomes of those discussions are for the community to decide. We expect that the community, using the bottom-up multistakeholder model, will take into account all stakeholders’ views and concerns.

He denied that coordinating Whois data is equivalent to content regulation, saying it falls squarely within ICANN’s mandate.

“ICANN’s mission related to ‘access to’ this data has always encompassed lawful third-party access and use, including for purposes that may not fall within ICANN’s mission,” he wrote.

The exchange of letters comes as parties on the other side of the Whois debate also lobby ICANN and its governmental advisors over the need for Whois access.

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ICANN 63, Day 0 — registrars bollock DI as Whois debate kicks off

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2018, Domain Policy

Blameless, cherubic domain industry news blogger Kevin Murphy received a bollocking from registrars over recent coverage of Whois reform yesterday, as he attended the first day of ICANN 63, here in Barcelona.

Meanwhile, the community working group tasked with designing this reform put in a 10-hour shift of face-to-face talks, attempting to craft the language that will, they hope, bring ICANN’s Whois policy into line with European privacy law.

Talks within this Expedited Policy Development Process working group have not progressed a massive amount since I last reported on the state of affairs.

They’re still talking about “purposes”. Basically, trying to write succinct statements that summarize why entities in the domain name ecosystem collect personally identifiable information from registrants.

Knowing why you’re collecting data, and explaining why to your customers, is one of the things you have to do under the General Data Protection Regulation.

Yesterday, the EPDP spent pretty much the entire day arguing over what the “purposes” of ICANN — as opposed to registries, registrars, or anyone else — are.

The group spent the first half of the day trying to agree on language explaining ICANN’s role in coordinating DNS security, and how setting policies concerning third-party access to private Whois data might play a role in that.

The main sticking point was the extent to which these third parties get a mention in the language.

Too little, and the Intellectual Property Constituency complains that their “legitimate interests” are being overlooked; too much, and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group cries that ICANN is overstepping its mission by turning itself into a vehicle for trademark enforcement.

The second half of the day was spent dealing with language explaining why collecting personal data helps to establish ownership of domains, which is apparently more complicated than it sounds.

Part of this debate was over whether registrants have “rights” — such as the right to use a domain name they paid for.

GoDaddy policy VP James Bladel spent a while arguing against this legally charged word, again favoring “benefits”, but appeared to eventually back down.

It was also debated whether relatively straightforward stuff such as activating a domain in the DNS by publishing name servers can be classed as the disclosure of personal data.

The group made progress reaching consensus on both sets of purposes, but damn if it wasn’t slow, painful progress.

The EPDP group will present its current state of play at a “High Interest Topic” session on Monday afternoon, but don’t expect to see its Initial Report this week as originally planned. That’s been delayed until next month.

While the EPDP slogs away, there’s a fair bit of back-channel lobbying of ICANN board and management going on.

All the players with a significant vested interest in the outcome are writing letters, conducting surveys, and so on, in order to persuade ICANN that it either does or does not need to create a “unified access model” that would allow some parties to carry on accessing private Whois data more or less the same way as they always have.

One such effort is the one I blogged about on Thursday, shortly before heading off to Barcelona, AppDetex’s claims that registrars have ignored or not sufficiently responded to some 9,000 automated requests for Whois data that its clients (notably Facebook) has spammed them with recently.

Registrars online and in-person gave me a bollocking over the post, which they said was one-sided and not in keeping with DI’s world-renowned record of fairness, impartiality and all-round awesomeness (I’m paraphrasing).

But, yeah, they may have a point.

It turns out the registrars still have serious beef with AppDetex’s bulk Whois requests, even with recent changes that attempt to scale back the volume of data demanded and provide more clarity about the nature of the request.

They suspect that AppDetex is simply trawling through zone files for strings that partially match a handful of Facebook’s trademarks, then spamming out thousands of data requests that fail to specify which trademarks are being infringed and how they are being infringed.

They further claim that AppDetex and its clients do not respond to registrars’ replies, suggesting that perhaps the aim of the game here is to gather data not about the owner of domains but about registrars’ alleged non-compliance with policy, thereby propping up the urgent case for a unified access mechanism.

AppDetex, in its defence, has been telling registrars on their private mailing list that it wants to carry on working with them to refine its notices.

The IP crowd and registrars are not the only ones fighting in the corridors, though.

The NCSG also last week shot off a strongly worded missive to ICANN, alleging that the organization has thrown in with the IP lobby, making a unified Whois access service look like a fait accompli, regardless of the outcome of the EPDP. ICANN has denied this.

Meanwhile, cybersecurity interests have also shot ICANN the results of a survey, saying they believe internet security is suffering in the wake of ICANN’s response to GDPR.

I’m going to get to both of these sets of correspondence in later posts, so please don’t give me a corridor bollocking for giving them short shrift here.

UPDATE: Minutes after posting this article, I obtained a letter Tucows has sent to ICANN, ripping into AppDetex’s “outrageous” campaign.

Tucows complains that it is being asked, in effect, to act as quality control for AppDetex’s work-in-progress software, and says the volume of spurious requests being generated would be enough for it ban AppDetex as a “vexatious reporter”.

AppDetex’s system apparently thinks “grifflnstafford.com” infringes on Facebook’s “Insta” trademark.

UPDATE 2: Fellow registrar Blacknight has also written to ICANN today to denounce AppDetex’s strategy, saying the “automated” requests it has been sending out are “not sincere”.

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