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Is ICANN over-reacting to Whois privacy law?

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2018, Domain Policy

Is ICANN pushing the domain industry to over-comply with the European Union’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation privacy law?

Governments and plenty of intellectual property and business lobbyists think so.

After days of criticism from unhappy IP lawyers, ICANN’s public meeting in Puerto Rico last week was capped with a withering critique of the organization’s proposed plan for the industry to become GDPR compliant as pertains Whois.

The Governmental Advisory Committee, in unusually granular terms, picked apart the plan in its usual formal, end-of-meeting advice bomb, which focused on making sure law enforcement and IP owners continue to get unfettered Whois access after GDPR kicks in in May.

Key among the GAC’s recommendations (pdf) is that the post-GDPR public Whois system should continue to publish the email address of each domain registrant.

Under ICANN’s plan — now known as the “Cookbook” — that field would be obscured and replaced with a contact form or anonymized email address.

The GAC advised ICANN to “reconsider the proposal to hide the registrant email address as this may not be proportionate in view of the significant negative impact on law enforcement, cybersecurity and rights protection;”.

But its rationale for the advice is a little wacky, suggesting that email addresses under some unspecified circumstances may not contain “personal data”:

publication of the registrant’s email address should be considered in light of the important role of this data element in the pursuit of a number of legitimate purposes and the possibility for registrants to provide an email address that does not contain personal data.

That’s kinda like saying your mailing address and phone number aren’t personal data, in my view. Makes no sense.

The GAC advice will have won the committee friends in the Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency, which throughout ICANN 61 had been pressuring ICANN to check whether removing email addresses from public Whois was strictly necessary.

ICANN is currently acting as a non-exclusive middleman between community members and the 20-odd Data Protection Authorities — which will be largely responsible for enforcing GDPR — in the EU.

It’s running compliance proposals it compiles from community input past the DPAs in the hope of a firm nod, or just some crumbs of guidance.

But the BC and IPC have been critical that ICANN is only submitting a single, rather Draconian proposal — one which would eschew email addresses from the public Whois — to the DPAs.

In a March 13 session, BC member Steve DelBianco pressed ICANN CEO Goran Marby and other executives and directors repeatedly on this point.

“If they [the DPAs] respond ‘Yes, that’s sufficient,’ we won’t know whether it was necessary,” DelBianco said, worried that the Cookbook guts Whois more than is required.

ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey conceded that the Cookbook given to the DPAs only contains one proposal, but said that it also outlines the “competing views” in the ICANN community on publishing email addresses and asks for guidance.

But email addresses are not the only beef the GAC/IPC/BC have with the ICANN proposal.

On Thursday, the GAC also advised that legal entities that are not “natural persons” should continue to have their full information published in the public Whois, on the grounds that GDPR only applies to people, not organizations.

That’s contrary to ICANN’s proposal, which for pragmatic reasons makes no distinction between people and companies.

There’s also the question of whether the new regime of Whois privacy should apply to all registrants, or just those based in the European Economic Area.

ICANN plans to give contracted parties the option to make it apply in blanket fashion worldwide, but some say that’s overkill.

Downtime for Whois?

While there’s bickering about which fields should be made private under the new regime, there doesn’t seem to be any serious resistance to the notion that, after May, Whois will become a two-tier system with a severely depleted public service and a firewalled, full-fat version for law enforcement and whichever other “legitimate users” can get their feet in the door.

The problem here is that while ICANN envisions an accreditation program for these legitimate users — think trademark lawyers, security researchers, etc — it has made little progress towards actually creating one.

In other words, Whois could go dark for everyone just two months from now, at least until the accreditation program is put in place.

The GAC doesn’t like that prospect.

It said in its advice that ICANN should: “Ensure continued access to the WHOIS, including non-public data, for users with a legitimate purpose, until the time when the interim WHOIS model is fully operational, on a mandatory basis for all contracted parties”.

But ICANN executives said in a session on Thursday that the org plans to ask the DPAs for a deferral of enforcement of GDPR over Whois until the domain industry has had time to come into compliance while continuing to grant access to full Whois to police and special interests.

December appears to be the favored date for this proposed implementation deadline, but ICANN is looking for feedback on its timetable by this coming Friday, March 23.

But the IPC/BC faction are not stting on their hands.

Halfway through ICANN 61 they expressed support for a draft accreditation model penned by consultant Fred Felman, formerly of brand protection registrar MarkMonitor.

The model, nicknamed “Cannoli” (pdf) for some reason, unsurprisingly would give full Whois access to anyone with enough money to afford a trademark registration, and those acting on behalf of trademark owners.

Eligible accreditees would also include security researchers and internet safety organizations with the appropriate credentials.

Once approved, accredited Whois users would have unlimited access to Whois records for defined purposes such as trademark enforcement or domain transfers. All of their queries would be logged and randomly audited, and they could lose accreditation if found to be acting outside of their legitimate purpose.

But Cannoli felt some resistance from ICANN brass, some of whom pointed out that it had been drafted by just one part of the community

“If the community — the whole community — comes up with an accreditation model we would be proud to put that before the DPAs,” Marby said during Thursday’s public forum in Puerto Rico.

It’s a somewhat ironic position, given that ICANN was just a few weeks ago prepared to hand over responsibility for creating the first stage of the accreditation program — covering law enforcement — wholesale to the GAC.

The GAC’s response to that request?

It’s not interested. Its ICANN 61 communique said the GAC “does not envision an operational role in designing and implementing the proposed accreditation programs”.

Odd-couple coalition wants URS deleted from legacy gTLD contracts

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2015, Domain Registries

Commercial and non-commercial interests within ICANN have formed a rare alliance in order to oppose the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy in three new legacy gTLD contracts.

The groups want ICANN to delete URS from the .travel, .cat and .pro Registry Agreements, which were all renewed for 10-year terms last week.

The Business Constituency and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group put their names to a Request for Reconsideration filed with ICANN yesterday.

The Internet Commerce Association, a member of the BC, filed a separate RfR asking for the same thing yesterday too.

These groups believe that ICANN contracting staff are trying to create consensus policy by the back door, from the top down, by imposing URS on gTLDs that were delegated before the 2012 application round.

URS was created specifically for the new gTLD program and therefore should not apply to legacy gTLDs, they say. The BC/NCSG request states:

Our joint concern… is that a unilateral decision by ICANN contractual staff within the [Global Domains Division] to take the new gTLD registry agreement as the starting point for renewal RAs for legacy gTLDs has the effect of transforming the PDDRP [Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Process] and the URS into de facto Consensus Policies without following the procedures laid out in ICANN’s Bylaws for their creation. To be clear, we take no objection to a registry voluntarily agreeing to adopt RPMs in their contractual negotiations with ICANN.

The ICA has the same objections. It’s primarily concerned that the new contracts set a precedent that will ultimately force URS into the .com space, when Verisign’s contract comes up for renewal.

Both RfRs ask ICANN to delete the URS requirements from the just-signed .pro, .travel and .cat registry agreements.

The requesters suspect that rather than including URS as “the result of even-handed ‘bilateral negotiations'”, it was “staff insistence that the registries accept it to achieve timely registry agreement renewal.”

They want the ICANN board to demand to see the emails that were exchanged during negotiations in order to determine whether the registries were strong-armed into signing up for URS.

The BC/NCSG request is here. The ICA request is here.

.sucks threatens ICANN with defamation claim after “extortion” letters

Vox Populi Registry has threatened to sue ICANN for defamation and other alleged breaches of US law, over allegations of “extortion” made by two of its constituencies.

The registry’s outside law firm wrote to ICANN yesterday, saying that it has “has no interest in pursuing claims at this time” but adding:

if ICANN or any of its constituent bodies (or any directly responsible member thereof) engages in any further wrongful activity that prevents the company from fulfilling its contractual obligations and operating the .SUCKS registry as both ICANN and Vox Populi envisioned, the company will have no choice but to pursue any and all remedies available to it.

The letter follows claims by the Intellectual Property Constituency that .sucks and its $1,999 annual sunrise fees constitute a “predatory” “shakedown”, claims which ICANN has forwarded to US and Canadian trade regulators for their legal opinions.

The IPC letter was followed up by similar claims by the Business Constituency on Friday.

Vox Pop now wants these constituencies, and ICANN itself, to shut up.

“Rather than assuming cooler heads will prevail, it is time to tell ICANN to stop interfering in our ability to operate the registry,” CEO John Berard said in an email to reporters. “We are not taking legal action at this point but making it clear that we reserve the right if ICANN continues in its wrong-headed approach.”

The company denies that .sucks will encourage cybersquatting, noting that like all other gTLDs it is subject to the anti-cybersquatting UDRP and URS remedies.

it would seem that ICANN is not actually concerned about cybersquatting or any other illegal activity. Rather, ICANN appears concerned that registrations on the .SUCKS registry will be used to aggregate uncomplimentary commentary about companies and products — the very purpose for the registry that Vox Populi identified in the application it submitted to ICANN, and that ICANN approved

ICANN has disseminated defamatory statements about Vox Populi and its business practices aimed at depriving Vox Populi of the benefits of its contract with ICANN. These actions further violate the duty of good faith and fair dealing that is implied in every contract… in suggesting illegality without any basis whatsoever, your actions (and those of the ICANN IPC and ICANN BC) have given rise to defamation claims against ICANN. Vox Populi hereby demands that ICANN, including any and all of its subdivisions, cease any and all such activity immediately.

There’s bucketloads of irony here, of course.

The company says it is standing up for its future registrants’ rights to free speech, but wants its own critics gagged today.

Read the letter as a PDF here.

Businesses call on regulators to stop .sucks “extortion”

ICANN’s Business Constituency wants US and Canadian regulators to intervene to prevent Vox Populi Registry, which runs .sucks, “extorting” businesses with its high sunrise fees.

The BC wrote to ICANN, the US Federal Trade Commission and the Canadian Office for Consumer Affairs on Friday, saying .sucks has employed “exploitive [sic] pricing and unfair marketing practices”.

The constituency adds its voice to Intellectual Property Constituency, which complained last month, causing ICANN to refer the matter to US and Canadian regulators.

Now, the BC has told the OCA and FTC:

We do not believe that exploitative and unfair business practices are conducive either to promoting end-user confidence in the Internet or to fair competition in the domain name space. On the contrary, the pricing structure adopted by Vox Populi for .sucks domain names is predicated purely on expecting the businesses and brands that drive global growth to pay extortionate fees for no consumer or market benefit.

Vox Populi’s tactics exploit businesses that neither want nor need these domain name registrations but feel unfairly pressured to register purely for defensive purposes.

The BC’s letter chooses to focus on saying sunrise names cost “$2,499 and up” (original emphasis). That’s based on the MSRP Vox Pop publishes on its web site.

In reality, Vox Pop is charging a registry fee of $1,999 per year for .sucks sunrise registrations.

Retail registrars can add hundreds of dollars in mark-up fees, but the leading corporate registrars that are selling the most .sucks sunrise names — MarkMonitor, CSC and Com Laude among them — have said that as a matter of principle they are only charging a nominal $20 to $25 processing fee.

It’s not the highest sunrise fee I’ve come across. The Chinese registry behind .top asked for $3,500 during its sunrise.

But the semantics of the .sucks TLD makes brand owners nervous and makes many of them feel that a defensive registration is a must-have.

The BC now write to regulators to “urge the FTC and OCA to expeditiously determine whether these practices constitute unfair trade practices”.

The letter points to US and Canadian regulations covering consumer protection for examples of where Vox Pop’s practices may fall short of the law.

The free speech opportunities afforded by .sucks do not outweigh the harms, the BC says.

It’s also interesting to note that while the BC appears to be running to regulators for assistance, it notes that it still fully supports the ICANN model.

There may be a degree of cognitive dissonance within the BC.

In a separate letter to ICANN, also signed by BC chair Elisa Cooper and sent yesterday, the BC seems to take issue with the fact that ICANN felt the need to report .sucks to regulators in the first place, writing:

We would like to understand the rationale for doing so. ICANN has ample authority, a clear obligation and the resources available to stop rogue practices through its contractual agreements with registries, its Compliance Department, and its broad duty to protect the public interest and the security and stability of the Internet, particularly for issues with global reach. Like all other gTLDs launched under ICANN’s program, .sucks has a global reach. It is not clear why ICANN feels it should seek clarification from these two North American agencies.

It’s worth noting that Vox Pop CEO Berard is a member of the BC via his PR agency, Credible Context. He was Cooper’s immediate predecessor as BC chair, leaving the post last year.

Correction: Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that Berard was actually the BC’s representative to the GNSO, not its chair. Apologies for the error.

The letter tells Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah that “viewed in its entirety, Vox Populi’s pricing scheme is a violation of the Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs)” developed for the new gTLD program, alleging it discourages use of the RPMs and encourages cybersquatting.

It claims that if Vox Pop populated its Sunrise Premium list (now known as Market Premium, it seems) with data from the Trademark Clearinghouse it could be in violation of its Registry Agreement with ICANN.

My sense has been that the names on that list were actually culled from zone files. Vox Pop has said it was compiled from lists of names that have previously been defensively registered. Most of the names in the TMCH have not been defensively registered.

The BC asks for ICANN “to take strong action”, but does not specify what, exactly, it wants.

The letter to the OCA and FTC can be read here. The letter to ICANN is here. Both are PDF files.