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DI Leaders Roundtable #3 — What did you think of ICANN 66?

Kevin Murphy, November 25, 2019, Leaders Roundtable

It’s time for the third in the series of DI Leaders Roundtables, in which I pose a single question to a selection of the industry’s thought leaders.

With ICANN 66 taking place a couple of weeks ago in Montreal, Canada, a multitude of topics came under public discussion, among them: DNS abuse, the .amazon gTLD application, access to Whois data and geographic names protections.

So, this time around, I asked:

What was your biggest takeaway from ICANN 66?

And this, in no particular order, is what they said:

Frank Schilling, CEO, Uniregistry

Mugshot

What a great industry… So many stable players with fresh ideas. Innovators who cross pollinate and stay with the industry in spite of the fact that there is no new gold and obvious money-making opportunity at the moment. Many stable operators trying new things and growing the industry from the inside out.

Michele Neylon, CEO, Blacknight

MugshotThere weren’t any big surprises at ICANN 66. As I expected there were a couple of topics that many people were focussed on and they ignored pretty much everything else.

The biggest single topic was “abuse”. It’s not a “new” topic, but it’s definitely one that has come to the fore in recent months.

Several of us signed on to a “framework to address abuse” in the run up to the ICANN meeting and that, in many respects, may have helped to shift the focus a little bit. It’s pretty clear that not all actors within the eco system are acting in good faith or taking responsibility for their actions (and inactions). It’s also pretty clear that a lot of us are tired of having to pay the cost for other people’s lack of willingness to deal with the issues.

Calls for adding more obligations to our contracts are not welcome and I don’t think they’ll help deal with the real outliers anyway.

There’s nothing wrong in theory with offering cheap domain names but if you consciously choose to adopt that business model you also need to make sure that you are proactive in dealing with fraud and abuse.

Ben Crawford, CEO, CentralNic

MugshotThat M&A has become the dominant business activity in the domain industry.

Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Tech

MugshotMy takeaways are shaped by my participation on the EPDP, which is trying to build a “standardized system of access and disclosure” for redacted Whois data. The acronym is SSAD, but it is known among EPDP aficionados as the “So-SAD.” This is because nearly all stakeholders think they want it to exist, but the process of constructing it through an ICANN PDP is painful and certain to make everyone unhappy with what they ultimately get.

The big issue here concerns the question of where liability under the GDPR will sit when private data is released through a So-SAD. Registrars and registries would like to fob off the responsibility to ICANN; ICANN tells the world that it wants responsibility to be centralized somehow in a So-SAD but ducks, dodges and double-talks if you ask it whether ICANN org is willing to take that responsibility.

ICANN’s CEO, who fancies himself a European politician of sorts, has driven the EPDP team batty with a parallel process in which he ignores the fact that the EPDP team has all stakeholders represented, lawyers from contracted parties and data users, and privacy experts on it, as well as formal legal advice from Bird and Bird. Instead he feels compelled to launch a parallel process in which ICANN org goes about trying to make proposals and then ask European authorities about them. He has asked a bunch of techies unaware of the policy issues to design a So-SAD for us and is now badgering various European agencies for “advice” and “guidance” on whether such a system could centralize legal responsibility for disclosure decisions. The parallel process, known as the Strawberry team, was featured in the public meeting on Whois reform as if it was of equal status as the formally constituted EPDP.

But a great ICANN 66 takeaway moment occurred during that moment. The European Commission’s Pearce O’Donoghue told the assembled multitudes that a SoSAD “WOULD NOT…REMOVE THE LIABILITY OF THE DATA CONTROLLER, WHICH IS THE REGISTRAR OR THE REGISTRY. SO WE WOULD HAVE A QUESTION AS TO WHETHER IT IS ACTUALLY WORTH THAT ADDED COMPLEXITY.” So, bang, the request for European advice blew up right in Goran Marby’s face. Not only did he get a critical piece of advice on the most important issue facing the SoSAD and the EPDP, but he got it without going through the elaborate parallel process. No doubt there is now furious behind the scenes lobbying going on to reverse, change or step back from O’Donoghue’s comment. Marby has been quoted (and directly seen, by this writer) as claiming that with the submission of the Strawberry team’s formal request for “guidance” from the European Data Protection Board being submitted, he is now “done” with this. Let’s hope that’s true. My takeaway: ICANN org and all of its fruity concoctions needs to get out of the way and let the PDP work.

The final EPDP-related takeaway is that the biggest decision facing the EPDP as it makes policy for the So-SAD is who makes the disclosure decision: registrars who hold the data, or ICANN? Everyone agrees with centralizing the process of requesting data and hooking up to a system to receive it. But who makes the decision is still contested, with some stakeholders wanting it to be ICANN and others wanting it to reside with the contracted parties. It seems obvious to me that it has to be the registrar, and we should just accept that and get on with designing the So-SAD based on that premise.

Jothan Frakes, Executive Director, Domain Name Association

Mugshot

A few: WHOIS (or Lookup) remains challenging territory, registries and registrars > are not inactive about addressing abuse while avoiding becoming content police, and poutine is delicious.

Christa Taylor, CMO, MMX

MugshotFrom my perspective, the biggest takeaway is the level of industrious efforts, transformation and passion throughout the industry. Every meeting and dinner consisted of a broad range of organizations and people with diverse perspectives on industry topics resulting in thought-provoking debates or conceptual brainteasers. Compared to a year ago, the conversations have materially changed — impacted from industry consolidations, system updates and developments along with organizational transitions to streamline business in one method or another. While there is still plenty of work ahead of us, both within the industry and ICANN, it’s satisfying to reflect and realize that progress is being achieved, cooperation benefits all and no matter how long the tunnel might be, there is light.

Spam is not our problem, major domain firms say ahead of ICANN 66

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2019, Domain Policy

Eleven of the largest domain name registries and registrars have denied that spam is something they should have to deal with, unless it’s used to proliferate other types of abuse such as phishing or malware.

In a newly published “Framework to Address Abuse” (pdf), the companies attempt to define the term “DNS abuse” narrowly to capture only five (arguably only four and a half) specific types of online threat.

That abuse comprises malware, phishing, botnets, pharming and spam.

The companies agree that these are activities which registrars and registries “must” act upon.

But the document notes that not all spam is its responsibility, stating:

While Spam alone is not DNS Abuse, we include it in the five key forms of DNS Abuse when it is used as a delivery mechanism for the other four forms of DNS Abuse. In other words, generic unsolicited e-mail alone does not constitute DNS Abuse, but it would constitute DNS Abuse if that e-mail is part of a phishing scheme.

In other words, registrars and registries should not feel responsible for the billions of spams sent every day using their domains, unless the spam runs further malware, phishing, pharming or botnet abuse.

The signatories of the framework are Public Interest Registry, GoDaddy, Donuts, Tucows, Amazon Registry Services, Blacknight, Afilias, Name.com, Amazon Registrar, Neustar, and Nominet UK.

It may seem like they’ve presented a surprisingly narrow definition, but it’s in line with what current ICANN contracts dictate.

Neither the standard Registry Agreement nor Registrar Accreditation Agreement mention spam at all. Six years ago, ICANN specifically said that spam is “outside of ICANN’s scope and authority”.

Under the RA, registries have to oblige their registrars to ban registrants from “distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law”.

They also have to maintain statistical reports on the amount of “pharming, phishing, malware, and botnets” in their zones, and provide those reports to ICANN upon demand. A recent audit found that 5% of registries, mainly dot-brands, were not doing this.

However, ICANN’s Domain Abuse Activity Reporting system, an effort to provide some transparency into how gTLDs are being abused, does in fact track spam. It does not track pharming, which is a fairly obscure and little-used form of DNS attack.

The DAAR report for September shows that spam constituted 73% of all tracked abuse.

The ICANN board of directors today identified DAAR as one of a few dozen priorities for the coming year.

Similarly, the cross-community working group known as the CCT Review Team, which was tasked with looking into how the new gTLD program has impacted competition and consumer trust, had harsh words for spam-friendly registries, and provided a definition of “DNS Security Abuse” that specifically included “high volume spam”.

The review recommended that ICANN introduce more measures to force contracted parties to deal with this type of abuse. This could include incentives for registries to clean up their zones and abuse volume thresholds that would automatically trigger compliance actions.

The new framework document comes in the context of an ongoing debate within the ICANN community about what “DNS abuse” is.

Two partners at Interisle, a security consultancy that often works for ICANN, recently guest-posted on DI to say that this term has become meaningless and should be abandoned in favor of “security threat”.

They argued that the definition should include not only spam, but also stuff like IP infringement, election interference, and terrorism.

But the main threat to contracted parties probably comes from the Governmental Advisory Committee, backed by law enforcement, which is pushing for stronger rules covering abusive content.

During a webinar last week, the US Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, and Europol argued that registries and registrars should be obliged to do more to combat abuse, specifically including spam.

“Whether or not you call it phishing or spam or whether it has a malware payload or not, ultimately it’s all email, and email remains the most common tool of cybercriminals to ensnare their victims, and that’s why we in law enforcement care about the domains used to send emails,” said Gabriel Andrews of the FBI’s Cyber Initiative Resource Fusion Unit, on the call.

Registries and registrars countered, using the same language found in the new framework, that generic spam is a content issue, and outside of their remit.

The two sides are set to clash again at ICANN’s annual general meeting in Montreal next month, in a November 6 face-to-face session.

While 11 entities signed the new framework, it’s arguably only nine companies. Name.com is owned by Donuts and both Amazon firms obviously have the same parent.

But it does include the two largest registrars, and registries responsible for running several hundred commercial gTLDs, dot-brands and ccTLDs.

While none of the signatories of the framework have a particular reputation for being spam-friendly, other companies in the industry — particularly some of the newest and cheapest new gTLDs — tend to attract spammers like flies to a turd.

Some of the signatories are perhaps surprising, given their past or ongoing behavior to tackle content-based abuse in their own zones.

Nominet, notably, takes down tens of thousands of domains ever year based on little more than police assurances that the domains are being used to sell counterfeit merchandise or infringe copyright.

The .uk registry also preemptively suspends domains based on algorithms that guess whether they’re likely to be seen as encouraging sexual violence or could be used in phishing attacks.

Donuts also has a trusted notifier relationship with the movie and music industries that has seen it take down dozens of names being used for mass copyright infringement.

PIR has previous endorsed, then unendorsed, the principal of a “UDRP for copyright”, a method of giving Big Content a way of going through due process to have domains taken or suspended.

Outside the spam issue, while the new registry-registrar framework says that registries and registrars should not get involved in matters related to web site content, it also says they nevertheless “should” (as opposed, one assumes based on the jargon usually found in internet standards, to “must”) suspend domains when they’re being used to distribute:

(1) child sexual abuse materials (“CSAM”); (2) illegal distribution of opioids online; (3) human trafficking; and (4) specific and credible incitements to violence.

These are exceptions because they constitute “the physical and often irreversible threat to human life”, the framework says.

Ultimately, this all boils down to a religious debate about where the line is drawn between “DNS” and “content”, it seems to me.

The contracted parties draw the line at threats to human life, whereas others want action on other forms of abuse largely because registries and registrars are in the best position to help.

Sixty gTLD registries not monitoring security threats

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2019, Domain Registries

Roughly 5% of gTLD registry operators have been doing no abuse monitoring, despite contractual requirements to do so, a recent ICANN audit has found.

ICANN checked with 1,207 registries — basically all gTLDs — between November 2018 and June, and found about 60 of them “were not performing any security threat monitoring, despite having domains registered in their gTLDs”.

A further 180 (15%) were not doing security checks, but had no registered domains, usually because they were unused dot-brands. ICANN told these companies that they had to do the checks anyway, to remain in compliance.

In all cases, ICANN said, the registries remediated their oversights during the audit to bring their gTLDs back into compliance.

ICANN does not name the non-compliant registries in the summary of the audit’s results, published yesterday (pdf).

Registries under the 2012 new gTLD base registry agreement all have to agree to this:

Registry Operator will periodically conduct a technical analysis to assess whether domains in the TLD are being used to perpetrate security threats, such as pharming, phishing, malware, and botnets. Registry Operator will maintain statistical reports on the number of security threats identified and the actions taken as a result of the periodic security checks. Registry Operator will maintain these reports for the term of the Agreement unless a shorter period is required by law or approved by ICANN, and will provide them to ICANN upon request.

It’s possible to keep tabs on abuse by monitoring domain blocklists such as SpamHaus, SURBL and PhishTank. Some such lists are freely available, others carry hefty licensing fees.

ICANN itself monitors these lists through its Domain Abuse Activity Reporting project, so it’s able to work out the differences between the levels of abuse registries report and what the empirical data suggests.

Registries typically either use these lists via in-house tools or license products provided by vendors such as Neustar, RegistryOffice, Knipp, CSC, DOTZON, Afnic, AusCERT, Shadowserver, Telefonica, Secure Domain Foundation and Netcraft, ICANN said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a bit of disagreement between ICANN and some registries about how the somewhat vague obligations quote above are be interpreted.

ICANN thinks registries should have to provide information about specific domains that were identified as abusive and what remediation actions were taken, but some registries think they only have to provide aggregate statistical data (which would be my read of the language).

The contracts also don’t specify how frequently registries much carry out security reviews.

Of the 80% (965) of registries already in compliance, 80% (772) were doing daily abuse monitoring. Others were doing it weekly, monthly, or even quarterly, ICANN found, all of which appear to be in line with contractual requirements.

ICANN must do more to fight internet security threats [Guest Post]

ICANN and its contracted parties need to do more to tackle security threats, write Dave Piscitello and Lyman Chapin of Interisle Consulting.

The ICANN Registry and Registrar constituencies insist that ICANN’s role with respect to DNS abuse is limited by its Mission “to ensure the stable and secure operation of the internet’s unique identifier systems”, therefore limiting ICANN’s remit to abuse of the identifier systems themselves, and specifically excluding from the remit any harms that arise from the content to which the identifiers point.

In their view, if the harm arises not from the identifier, but from the thing identified, it is outside of ICANN’s remit.

This convenient formulation relieves ICANN and its constituencies of responsibility for the way in which identifiers are used to inflict harm on internet users. However convenient it may be, it is fundamentally wrong.

ICANN’s obligation to operate “for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole” (see Bylaws, “Commitments”) demands that its remit extend broadly to how a domain name (or other Internet identifier) is misused to point to or lure a user or application to content that is harmful, or to host content that is harmful.

Harmful content itself is not ICANN’s concern; the way in which internet identifiers are used to weaponize harmful content most certainly is.

Rather than confront these obligations, however, ICANN is conducting a distracting debate about the kinds of events that should be described as “DNS abuse”. This is tedious and pointless; the persistent overloading of the term “abuse” has rendered it meaningless, ensuring that any attempt to reach consensus on a definition will fail.

ICANN should stop using the term “DNS abuse” and instead use the term “security threat”.

The ICANN Domain Abuse Activity Reporting project and the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) use this term, which is also a term of reference for new TLD program obligations (Spec 11) and related reporting activities. It is also widely used in the operational and cybersecurity communities.

Most importantly, the GAC and the DAAR project currently identify and seek to measure an initial set of security threats that are a subset of a larger set of threats that are recognized as criminal acts in jurisdictions in which a majority of domain names are registered.

ICANN should acknowledge the GAC’s reassertion in its Hyderabad Communique that the set of security threats identified in its Beijing correspondence to the ICANN Board were not an exhaustive list but merely examples. The GAC smartly recognized that the threat landscape is constantly evolving.

ICANN should not attempt to artificially narrow the scope of the term “security threat” by crafting its own definition.

It should instead make use of an existing internationally recognized criminal justice treaty. The Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime is a criminal justice treaty that ICANN could use as a reference for identifying security threats that the Treaty recognizes as criminal acts.

The Convention is recognized by countries in which a sufficiently large percentage domain names are registered that it can serve the community and Internet users more effectively and fairly than any definition that ICANN might concoct.

ICANN should also acknowledge that the set of threats that fall within its remit must include all security events (“realized security threats”) in which a domain name is used during the execution of an attack for purposes of deception, for infringement on copyrights, for attacks that threaten democracies, or for operation of criminal infrastructures that are operated for the purpose of launching attacks or facilitating criminal (often felony) acts.

What is that remit?

ICANN policy and contracts must ensure that contracted parties (registrars and registries) collaborate with public and private sector authorities to disrupt or mitigate:

  • illegal interception or computer-related forgery,
  • attacks against computer systems or devices,
  • illegal access, data interference, or system interference,
  • infringement of intellectual property and related rights,
  • violation of laws to ensure fair and free elections or undermine democracies, and
  • child abuse and human trafficking.

We note that the Convention on Cybercrime identifies or provides Guidance Notes for these most prevalently executed attacks or criminal acts:

  • Spam,
  • Fraud. The forms of fraud that use domain names in criminal messaging include, business email compromise, advance fee fraud, phishing or other identity thefts.
  • Botnet operation,
  • DDoS Attacks: in particular, redirection and amplification attacks that exploit the DNS
  • Identity theft and phishing in relation to fraud,
  • Attacks against critical infrastructures,
  • Malware,
  • Terrorism, and,
  • Election interference.

In all these cases, the misuse of internet identifiers to pursue the attack or criminal activity is squarely within ICANN’s remit.

Registries or registrars should be contractually obliged to take actions that are necessary to mitigate these misuses, including suspension of name resolution, termination of domain name registrations, “unfiltered and unmasked” reporting of security threat activity for both registries and registrars, and publication or disclosure of information that is relevant to mitigating misuses or disrupting cyberattacks.

No one is asking ICANN to be the Internet Police.

The “ask” is to create policy and contractual obligations to ensure that registries and registrars collaborate in a timely and uniform manner. Simply put, the “ask” is to oblige all of the parties to play on the same team and to adhere to the same rules.

This is unachievable in the current self-regulating environment, in which a relatively small number of outlier registries and registrars are the persistent loci of extraordinary percentages of domain names associated with cyberattacks or cybercrimes and the current contracts offer no provisions to suspend or terminate their operations.

This is a guest editorial written by Dave Piscitello and Lyman Chapin, of security consultancy Interisle Consulting Group. Interisle has been an occasional ICANN security contractor, and Piscitello until last year was employed as vice president of security and ICT coordination on ICANN staff. The views expressed in this piece do not necessary reflect DI’s own.

PwC wants to be your Whois gatekeeper

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2019, Domain Services

PricewaterhouseCoopers has built a Whois access system that may help domain name companies and intellectual property interests call a truce in their ongoing battle over access to private Whois data.

Its new TieredAccess Platform will enable registries and registrars to “outsource the entire process of providing access to non-public domain registration data”.

That’s according to IP lawyer Bart Lieben, partner at the Belgian law firm ARTES, who devised the system and is working with PwC to develop it.

The offering is designed to give trademark lawyers access to the data they lust after, while also reducing costs and mitigating domain name industry liability under the General Data Protection Regulation.

TieredAccess would make PwC essentially the gatekeeper for all requests for private Whois data (at least, in the registries plugged into the platform) coming from the likes of trademark owners, security researchers, lawyers and law enforcement agencies.

At one end, these requestors would be pre-vetted by PwC, after which they’d be able to ask for unredacted Whois records using PwC as an intermediary.

They’d have to pick from one of 43 pre-written request scenarios (such as cybersquatting investigation, criminal probe or spam prevention) and assert that they will only use the data they obtain for the stated purposes.

At the other end, registries and registrars will have adopted a set of rules that specify how such requests should be responded to.

A ruleset could say that cops get more access to data than security researchers, for example, or that a criminal investigation is more important than a UDRP complaint.

PwC has created a bunch of templates, but registrars and registries would be able to adapt these policies to their own tastes.

Once the rules are put in place, and the up-front implementation work has been done to plug PwC into their Whois servers, they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Whois requests manually as most are today. The whole lot would be automated.

Not even PwC would have human eyes on the requests. The private data would only be stored temporarily.

One could argue that there’s the potential for abusive or non-compliant requests making it through, which may give liability-nervous companies pause.

But the requests and response metadata would be logged for audit and compliance, so abusive users could be fingered after the act.

Lieben says the whole system has been checked for GDPR compliance, assuming its prefabricated baseline scenarios and templates are adopted unadulterated.

He said that the PwC brand should give clients on both sides “peace of mind” that they’re not breaking privacy law.

If a registrar requires an affidavit before releasing data, the assertions requestors make to PwC should tick that box, he said.

Given that this is probably a harder sell to the domain name industry side of the equation, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the requestors that are likely to shoulder most of the cost burden of using the service.

Lieben said a pricing model has not yet been set, but that it could see fees paid by registrars subsidized by the fees paid by requestors.

There’s a chance registries could wind up paying nothing, he said.

The project has been in the works since September and is currently in the testing phase, with PwC trying to entice registries and registrars onto the platform.

Lieben said some companies have already agreed to test the service, but he could not name them yet.

The service was developed against the backdrop of ongoing community discussions within ICANN in the Expedited Policy Development Working group, which is trying to create a GDPR-compliant policy for access to private Whois records.

ICANN Org has also made it known that it is considering making itself the clearinghouse for Whois queries, to allow its contracted parties to offload some liability.

It’s quite possible that once the policies are in place, ICANN may well decide to outsource the gatekeeper function to the likes of PwC.

That appears to be what Lieben has in mind. After all, it’s what he did with the Trademark Clearinghouse almost a decade ago — building it independently with Deloitte while the new gTLD rules were still being written and then selling the service to ICANN when the time came.

The TieredAccess service is described in some detail here.

“Stringent” new online censorship law could affect domain companies

Kevin Murphy, April 8, 2019, Domain Policy

Blame Zuck.

The UK government is planning to introduce what it calls “stringent” new laws to tackle abusive behavior online, and there’s a chance it could wind up capturing domain name registries and registrars in its net.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport this morning published what it calls the Online Harms White Paper, an initial 12-week consultation document that could lead to legislation being drafted at a later date.

The paper calls for the creation of a new independent regulator, charged with overseeing social media companies’ efforts to reduce the availability of content such as incitements to violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, “hate crime” and even “fake news”.

It basically would increase the amount of liability that companies have for user-generated content hosted on their services, even when that content is not necessarily illegal but is nevertheless considered “harmful”.

The regulator would have to create a code of conduct for companies the legislation covers to abide by.

When the code is breached, the regulator would have the authority to issue fines — possibly comparable to the 4% of profits that can be fined under GDPR — against not only the companies themselves but also their senior management.

The paper seems to most directly address ongoing tabloid scandals related to Facebook and its ilk, such as the suicide of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old who viewed material related to self-harm on Instagram before her death.

While it does not mention domain names once, the government clearly anticipates casting a wide net. The paper states:

The scope will include companies from a range of sectors, including social media companies, public discussion forums, retailers that allow users to review products online, along with non-profit organisations, file sharing sites and cloud hosting providers.

That’s a broad enough definition such that it could even cover blogs, including this one, that allow users to post comments.

The paper also discusses asking search engines to remove sites from their indexes, and compelling ISPs to block abusive sites as a “last resort” measure.

There’s a short mental hop from ISP blocking to domain name takedowns, in my view.

The paper also discusses steps the regulator could take to ensure companies with no UK legal presence are still covered by the rules.

While the paper, as I say, does not mention the domain name industry once, subsidiary services provided by registrars, such as hosting, could be directly affected.

There’s no guarantee that the paper will become a bill. There’s already a backlash from those who believe it constitutes unacceptable censorship, comparable to regimes such as in China.

There’s also no guarantee such a bill would eventually become law. The UK government is arguably currently the weakest it has ever been, with a propped-up minority in Parliament and many MPs in open revolt over Brexit.

With talk of an early general election incessant recently, it’s also possible the government may not last long enough to bring its plans to fruition.

Still, it’s probably something the domain industry, including ICANN, should probably keep an eye on.

The full 100-page white paper can be found here (pdf) and an executive summary can be read here.

Could crypto solve the Whois crisis?

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

Could there be a cryptographic solution to some of the problems caused by GDPR’s impact on public Whois databases? Security experts think so.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group has proposed that hashing personal information and publishing it could help security researchers carry on using Whois to finger abusive domain names.

In a letter to ICANN, APWG recently said that such a system would allow registries and registrars to keep their customers’ data private, but would still enable researchers to identify names registered in bulk by spammers and the like.

“Redacting all registration records which were formerly publicly available has unintended and undesirable consequences to the very citizens and residents that electronic privacy legislation intends to protect,” the letter (pdf) says.

Under the proposed system, each registry or registrar would generate a private key for itself. For each Whois field containing private data, the data would be added to the key and hashed using a standard algorithm such as SHA-512.

For items such as physical addresses, all the address-related fields would be concatenated, with the key, before hashing the combined value.

The resulting hash — a long string of gibberish characters — would then be published in the public Whois instead of the [REDACTED] notice mandated by current ICANN policy.

Security researchers would then be able to identify domains belonging to the same purported registrant by searching for domains containing the same hash values.

It’s not a perfect solution. Because each registry or registrar would have their own key, the same registrant would have different hash values in different TLDs, so it would not be possible to search across TLDs.

But that may not be a huge problem, given that bad guys tend to bulk-register names in TLDs that have special offers on.

The hashing system may also be beneficial to interest groups such as trademark owners and law enforcement, which also look for registration patterns when tracking down abuse registrants.

The proposal would create implementation headaches for registries and registrars — which would actually have to build the crypto into their systems — and compliance challenges for ICANN.

The paper notes that ICANN would have to monitor its contracted parties — not all of which may necessarily be unfriendly to spammers — to make sure they’re hashing the data correctly.

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”.

Registries reject lower fees for anti-abuse prowess

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2018, Domain Policy

Registries have largely rejected a proposal for them to be offered financial incentives to lower the amount of abuse in their gTLDs.

That’s despite the idea gaining broad support from governments, intellectual property interests and restricted-registration registries.

The concept of ICANN offering discounted fees to registries that proactively fight abuse was floated by the Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice Review Team (CCT) back in November.

It recommended in its draft report, among other things:

Consider directing ICANN org, in its discussions with registries, to negotiate amendments to existing Registry Agreements, or in negotiations of new Registry Agreements associated with subsequent rounds of new gTLDs to include provisions in the agreements providing incentives, including financial incentives for registries, especially open registries, to adopt proactive anti-abuse measures.

“Proactive” in this case would mean measures such as preventing known bad actors from registering domains, rather than just waiting for complaints to be filed.

Given that registries have been calling for lower ICANN fees in other instances, one might expect to see support from that constituency.

However, the Registries Stakeholder Group said in a document filed to ICANN’s public comment period on the CCT’s latest recommendations that, it “opposes” the idea of such financial incentives. It said:

The RySG supports recognizing and supporting the many [registry operators] that take steps to discourage abuse, but opposes amending the RA as recommended, to mandate or incentivize ‘proactive’ anti-abuse measures.

The RySG complained that such a system would require lots of complex work to arrive at a definition of abuse and what kinds of measures would qualify as “proactive”.

Even if such definitions could be found, and amendments to the standard RA successfully negotiated, there’s still no guarantee that bad registries would sign up for the incentives or stick to their promises, “resulting in no net improvement to the current situation”, the RySG said.

The group is also concerned that adding more anti-abuse clauses to the RA could increase registries’ risk of liability should they be sued over abuse carried out by their customers.

Not all registries agreed with the RySG position, however.

The informal Verified Top-Level Domains Consortium, which comprises the two registries behind .bank, .insurance and .pharmacy, filed comments supporting the proposal.

It said that gTLDs with vetted eligibility requirements see no abuse but have lower registration volumes and therefore pay higher ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. It said:

ICANN should help to offset these costs to create a more level playing field with high-volume unrestricted registries, i.e., to enhance competition as well as consumer trust. If ICANN made it more financially advantageous to verify eligibility, other registries may be encouraged to adopt this model. The outcome would be the elimination of abuse in these verified TLDs.

Outside of the industry itself, the Governmental Advisory Committee and IP interests such as the Intellectual Property Constituency and INTA, filed comments supporting anti-abuse incentives.

The IPC “strongly” supported the recommendation, but added that the finer details would need to be worked out to ensure that lower ICANN fees did not translate automatically to lower registration fees and therefore more abuse.

Shocking nobody, it added that “abuse” should include intellectual property infringements.

Conversely, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group said it “strongly” opposes the recommendation, on the basis that it would push ICANN into a “content policeman” role in violation of its technical mandate:

ICANN is not a US Federal Trade Commission or an anti-fraud unit or regulatory unit of any government. Providing guidance, negotiation and worse yet, financial incentives to ICANN-contracted registries for anti-abuse measures is completely outside of our competence, goals and mandates. Such acts would bring ICANN straight into the very content issues that passionately divide countries — including speech laws, competition laws, content laws of all types. It would invalidate ICANN commitments to ourselves and the global community. It would make ICANN the policemen of the Internet, not the guardians of the infrastructure. It is a role we have sworn not to undertake; a role beyond our technical expertise; and a recommendation we must not accept.

Also opposed to incentivizing anti-abuse measures was the Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group (an independent entity, not an ICANN working group), which said there’s no data to support such a recommendation.

The reports provide no data that showcase what the implications of altering the economic underpinnings of a highly competitive market may entail, including inadvertent side effects such as registries that already sell low price domains being rewarded with lower ICANN fees. In fact, it may ultimately result in a race to the bottom and higher rates of domain abuse.

Instead, M3AAWG said that ICANN should concentrate is contractual compliance efforts on those registries that the data shows already have large amounts of abuse — presumably meaning the likes of .top, .gdn and the Famous Four Media stable.

ICANN itself filed a comment on the proposal, pointing out that it is not able to unilaterally impose anti-abuse measures into registry agreements.

One imagines that lowering fees at a time when its own budget is under a lot of pressure would probably not be something ICANN would be eager to implement.

These comments and more were summarized in ICANN’s report on the CCT public comment period, published yesterday. The comments themselves can be found here.

The comments feed back into the CCT review team’s work ahead of its final report, which is due to be published some time during Q1.

Under its bylaws, the CCT review is one of the things that ICANN has to complete before it opens the next round of new gTLD applications.

SpamHaus ranks most-botted TLDs and registrars

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2018, Domain Registrars

Namecheap and Uniregistry have emerged as two of the most-abused domain name companies, using statistics on botnet command and control centers released by SpamHaus this week.

SpamHaus data shows that over a quarter of all botnet C&Cs found during the year were using NameCheap as their registrar.

It also shows that almost 1% of domains registered in Uniregistry’s .click are used as C&Cs.

The spam-fighting outfit said it discovered “almost 50,000” domains in 2017 that were registered for the purpose of controlling botnets.

Comparable data for 2016 was not published a year ago, but if you go back a few years, SpamHaus reported that there were just 3,793 such domains in 2014.

Neither number includes compromised domains or free subdomains.

The TLD with the most botnet abuse was of course .com, with 14,218 domains used as C&C servers. It was followed by Directi’s .pw (8,587) and Afilias’ .info (3,707).

When taking into account the relative size of the TLDs, SpamHaus fingered Russian ccTLD .ru as the “most heavily abused” TLD, but its numbers don’t ring true to me.

With 1,370 botnet controllers and about five and a half million domains, .ru’s abused domains would be around 0.03%.

But if you look at .click, with 1,256 botnet C&Cs and 131,000 domains (as of September), that number is very close to 1%. When it comes to botnets, that’s a high number.

In fact, using SpamHaus numbers and September registry reports of total domains under management, it seems that .work, .space, .website, .top, .pro, .biz, .info, .xyz, .bid and .online all have higher levels of botnet abuse than .ru, though in absolute numbers some have fewer abused domains.

In terms of registrars, Namecheap was the runaway loser, with a whopping 11,878 domains used to control botnets.

While SpamHaus acknowledges that the size of the registrar has a bearing on abuse levels, it’s worth noting that GoDaddy — by far the biggest registrar, but well-staffed with over-zealous abuse guys — does not even feature on the top 20 list here.

SpamHaus wrote:

While the total numbers of botnet domains at the registrar might appear large, the registrar does not necessarily support cybercriminals. Registrars simply can’t detect all fraudulent registrations or registrations of domains for criminal use before those domains go live. The “life span” of criminal domains on legitimate, well-run, registrars tends to be quite short.

However, other much smaller registrars that you might never have heard of (like Shinjiru or WebNic) appear on this same list. Several of these registrars have an extremely high proportion of cybercrime domains registered through them. Like ISPs with high numbers of botnet controllers, these registrars usually have no or limited abuse staff, poor abuse detection processes, and some either do not or cannot accept takedown requests except by a legal order from the local government or a local court.

The SpamHaus report, which you can read here, concludes with a call for registries and registrars to take more action to shut down repeat offenders, saying it is “embarrassing” that some registrars allow perpetrators to register domains for abuse over and over and over again.