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Most registrars fail ICANN abuse audit

Kevin Murphy, August 26, 2021, Domain Registrars

The large majority of accredited registrars failed an abuse-related audit at the first pass, according to ICANN.

The audit of 126 registrars, representing over 90% of all registered gTLD domains, founds that 111 were “not fully compliant with the [Registrar Accreditation Agreement’s] requirements related to the receiving and handling of DNS abuse reports”.

Only 15 companies passed with flying colors, ICANN said.

A further 92 have already put in place changes to address the identified concerns, with 19 more still struggling to come into compliance.

The particular parts of the RAA being audited require registrars to publish an abuse email address that it monitored 24/7 and to take action on well-founded cases of abuse within 24 hours of notification.

The results of the audit, carried out by ICANN Compliance and KPMG, can be found here (pdf).

Registrars to get more domain takedown powers

Kevin Murphy, August 4, 2021, Domain Registrars

ICANN will soon grant its accredited registrars the ability to unilaterally take down domains involved in ongoing security incidents, according to chair Maarten Botterman.

Responding to the news that registries have come up with a voluntary framework for tackling botnets that auto-generate domain registrations for use in command and control activities, Botterman said ICANN will extend a process currently restricted to registries into the registrar community.

That policy is the Expedited Registry Security Request Process, which allows registries to quickly obtain a retroactive waiver of its contractual obligations — such as the obligation to pay ICANN fees — if it has to urgently respond to a major incident.

The process was invoked four times last year, covering six gTLDs and roughly 1,600 domains. ICANN granted all four requests, though it seems to have on average missed its target of responding within three business days.

“As part of ICANN’s efforts to support the mitigation of DNS security threats, ICANN org will soon enable registrars to also request such waivers,” Botterman recently told the Registries Stakeholder Group.

He was responding to the news that several registries have signed up to a voluntary “Framework on Domain Generating Algorithms (DGAs) Associated with Malware and Botnets”.

That framework would allow registries to preemptively register or block domains likely to be auto-generated by botnet code, thereby cutting the head off the snake before it can wreak more havoc.

.com and NameSilo fingered as “most-abused” after numbers rocket

SpamHaus has revealed the most-abused TLDs and registrars in its second-quarter report on botnets.

The data shows huge growth in abuse at Verisign’s .com and the fast-growing NameSilo, which overtook Namecheap to top the registrar list for the first time.

Botnet command-and-control domains using .com grew by 166%, from 1,549 to 4,113, during the quarter, SpamHaus said.

At number two, .xyz saw 739 C&C domains, up 114%.

In the registrar league table, NameSilo topped the list for the first time, unseating Namecheap for the first time in years.

NameSilo had 1,797 C&C domains on its books, an “enormous” 594% increase. Namecheap’s number was 955 domains, up 52%.

Botnets are one type of “DNS abuse” that even registrars agree should be acted on at the registrar level.

The most-abused lists and lots of other botnet-related data can be found here.

Will you use SSAD for Whois queries?

Kevin Murphy, July 9, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN is pinging the community for feedback on proposed Whois reforms that would change how people request access to private registrant data.

The fundamental question is: given everything you know about the proposed System for Standardized Access and Disclosure (SSAD), how likely are you to actually use it?

The SSAD idea was dreamed up by a community working group as the key component of ICANN’s response to privacy laws such as GDPR, and was then approved by the Generic Names Supporting Organization.

But it’s been criticized for not going far enough to grant Whois access to the likes of trademark lawyers, law enforcement and security researchers. Some have called it a glorified ticketing system that will cost far more than the value it provides.

Before the policy is approved by ICANN’s board, it’s going through a new procedure called the ODP, for Operational Design Phase, in which ICANN staff, in coordination with the community, attempt to figure out whether SSAD would be cost-effective, or even implementable.

The questionnaire released today will be an input to the ODP. ICANN says it “will play a critical role in assessing the feasibility and associated risks, costs, and resources required in the potential deployment of SSAD.”

There’s only eight questions, and they mostly relate to the volume of private data requests submitted currently, how often SSAD is expected to be used, and what the barriers to use would be.

ICANN said it’s asking similar questions of registries and registrars directly.

There’s a clear incentive here for the IP and security factions within ICANN to low-ball the amount of usage they reckon SSAD will get, whether that’s their true belief or not, if they want ICANN to strangle the system in its crib.

It’s perhaps noteworthy that the potential user groups the questionnaire identifies do not include domain investors nor the media, both of which have perfectly non-nefarious reasons for wanting greater access to Whois data. This is likely because these communities were not represented on the SSAD working group.

You can find the questionnaire over here. You have until July 22.

153 registrars fingered for ICANN security probe

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2021, Domain Registrars

Registrars will be asked to account for abusive domain names found on their services, under a new ICANN security audit.

ICANN says it will soon send requests for information to 153 registrars, asking them to provide documentation showing how they dealt with domains used for distribution of malware or spam.

Registrars will get audited if more than five domains under their sponsorship showed up on a number of block-lists ICANN uses (SpamHaus and the like) during November 2020.

ICANN is spinning the number of affected registrars as a very small percentage of the accredited base, but it really isn’t.

It said that “only” 153 out of 2,380 accredited registrars are affected, apparently willfully ignoring the fact that well over 1,700 of these registrars are shell accreditations used for drop-catching and belonging to just two companies: Web.com and NameBright.

Domains never stick around at drop-catch shells for long, and abusive registrants typically aren’t buying expensive names on the aftermarket, they’re prowling the budget registrars for sub-dollar bargains and bulk-reg tools.

Up to a couple hundred or other accredited registrars have no or negligible domains under management. Several more are corporate registrars with no retail front-end.

So we’re really looking at “only” 153 out of 500 to 600 active retail registrars that saw the required level of abuse, a much higher percentage than would be ideal.

The audit is part of ICANN’s regular Contractual Compliance Audit Program, which seeks to determine whether any registrars or registries are in breach of their contractual obligations.

Under the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement, registrars are obliged to document their responses to abuse reports, keep the data for two years, and hand it over to ICANN on demand.

ICANN hopes to finish the audit by the third quarter this year.

Israeli registrar denies “arms dealer” claims

Israeli registrar GalComm has denied being involved in a widespread malware distribution scheme after being fingered by a security outfit.

Last month Awake Security accused the registrar, officially Communigal Communication Ltd, of being “at best complicit in malicious activity”.

The firm published a report entitled “The Internet’s New Arms Dealers: Malicious Domain Registrars” which linked GalComm to a network of malicious Chrome browser extensions the firm said can steal sensitive data from users who have them installed.

It identified 111 such plug-ins, which it said have been downloaded 33 million times, using over 15,000 domains registered via GalComm.

GalComm has around 48,000 domains registered in gTLDs at the last count, so that’s a sizable percentage of the registrar’s business.

Awake came to the conclusion that GalComm was well-aware of what its customers were up to.

Now, the registrar has sent a cease-and-desist notice to Awake, CC’d to ICANN (pdf), in which it denies all knowledge and responsibility for the malware.

GalComm’s line, to summarize, is that it’s just a registrar, and that it has no obligation to monitor how its customers use their domains.

It adds that the domains in question amount to 10% of its DUM. Still a pretty big chunk.

The company wants Awake to retract its report by today, which it has not yet done, or it will call in the lawyers.

Verisign pays ICANN $20 million and gets to raise .com prices again

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign is to get the right to raise the price of .com domains by 7% per year, under a new contract with ICANN.

The deal, announced this hour, will also see Verisign pay ICANN $20 million over five years, starting in 2021, “to support ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS”.

According to ICANN, the pricing changes mean that the maximum price of a .com domain could go as high as $10.26 by October 2026.

Verisign getting the right to once more increase its fees — which is likely to be worth close to a billion dollars to the company’s top line over the life of the contract — was not unexpected.

Pricing has been stuck at $7.85 for years, due to a price freeze imposed by the Obama-era US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but this policy was reversed by the Trump administration in late 2018.

The amendment to the .com registry agreement announced today essentially takes on the terms of the Trump appeasement, so Verisign gets to up .com prices by 7% in the last four years of the six-year duration of the contract.

ICANN said:

ICANN org is not a price regulator and will defer to the expertise of relevant competition authorities. As such, ICANN has long-deferred to the [US Department of Commerce] and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of pricing for .COM registry services.

But ICANN will also financially benefit from the deal over and above what it receives from Verisign under the current .com contract.

First, the two parties have said they will sign a binding letter of intent (pdf) committing Verisign to give ICANN $4 million a year, starting one year from now, to help fund ICANN’s activities:

conducting, facilitating or supporting activities that preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS, which may include, without limitation, active measures to promote and/or facilitate DNSSEC deployment, Security Threat mitigation, name collision mitigation, root server system governance and research into the operation of the DNS

That’s basically describing one of ICANN’s core missions, which is already funded to a great extent by .com fees, so quite why it’s being spun out into a separate agreement is a little bit of a mystery to me at this early stage.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the words “bung” or “quid pro quo” being slung around in the coming hours and days by ICANN critics.

The second financial benefit to ICANN comes from additional payments Verisign will have to make when it sells its ConsoliDate service.

This is the service that allows .com registrants, via their registrars, to synchronize the renewal dates of all of the domains in their portfolio, so they only have to worry about renewals on a single day of the year. It’s basically a partial-year renewal.

Under the amended .com contract, ICANN will get a piece of that action too. Verisign has agreed to pay ICANN a pro-rated fee, based on the $0.25 per-domain annual renewal fee, for the number of days any given registration is extended using ConsoliDate.

I’m afraid to say I don’t know how much money this could add to ICANN’s coffers, but another amendment to the contract means that Verisign will start to report ConsoliDate usage in its published monthly transaction reports, so we should get a pretty good idea of the $$$$ value in the second half of the year.

The amended contract — still in draft form (pdf) and open for public comment — also brings on a slew of new obligations for Verisign that bring .com more into line with other gTLDs.

There’s no Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, so domain investors and cybersquatters can breath a sigh of relief there.

But Verisign has also agreed to a new Registry-Registrar Agreement that contains substantial new provisions aimed at combating abuse, fraud and intellectual property infringement — including trademark infringement.

It has also agreed to a series of Public Interest Commitments, along the same lines as all the 2012-round new gTLDs, covering the same kinds of dodgy activities. The texts of the RRA addition and PICs are virtually identical, requiring:

a provision prohibiting the Registered Name Holder from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, pharming, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities, including suspension of the registration of the Registered Name;

There are also many changes related to how Verisign handles data escrow, Whois/RDAP and zone file access. It looks rather like users of ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, including yours truly, will soon have access to the humongous .com zone file on a daily basis. Yum.

The proposed amendments to the .com contract are now open for public comment here. You have until February 14. Off you go.

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.