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US and EU call for Whois to stay alive

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2018, Domain Policy

Government officials from both sides of the Atlantic have this week called on ICANN to preserve Whois as it currently is, in the face of incoming EU privacy law, at least for a select few users.

The European Commission wrote to ICANN to ask for a “pragmatic and workable solution” to the apparent conflict between the General Data Protection Regulation and the desire of some folks to continue to access Whois as usual.

Three commissioners said in a letter (pdf) that special consideration should be given to “public interests” including “ensuring cybersecurity and the stability of the internet, preventing and fighting crime, protecting intellectual property and copyright, or enforcing consumer protection measures”.

David Redl, the new head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, echoed these concerns in a speech at the State of the Net conference in Washington DC on Monday.

Redl said that the “preservation of the Whois service” is one of NTIA’s top two priorities at the moment. The other priority is pressing for US interests in the International Telecommunications Union, he said.

Calling Whois “a cornerstone of trust and accountability for the Internet”, Redl said the service “can, and should, retain its essential character while complying with national privacy laws, including the GDPR.”

“It is in the interests of all Internet stakeholders that it does,” he said. “And for anyone here in the US who may be persuaded by arguments calling for drastic change, please know that the US government expects this information to continue to be made easily available through the Whois service.”

He directly referred to the ability of regular internet users to access Whois for consumer protection purposes in his speech.

The European Commission appears to be looking at a more restrictive approach, but it did offer some concrete suggestions as to how GDPR compliance might be achieved.

For example, the commissioners’ letter appears to give tacit approval to the idea of “gated” access to Whois, but called for access by law enforcement to be streamlined and centralized.

It also suggests throttling as a mechanism to reduce abuse of Whois data, and makes it clear that registrants should always be clearly informed how their personal data will be used.

The deadline for GDPR compliance is May this year. That’s when the ability of EU countries to start to levy fines against non-compliant companies, which could run into millions of euros, kicks in.

While ICANN has been criticized by registries and registrars for moving too slowly to give them clarity on how to be GDPR-compliant while also sticking to the Whois provisions of their contracts, its pace has been picking up recently.

Two weeks ago it called for comments on three possible Whois models that could be used from May.

That comment period ended on Monday, and ICANN is expected to publish the model upon which further discussions will be based today.

Big changes at DomainTools as privacy law looms

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2018, Domain Services

Regular users of DomainTools should expect significant changes to their service, possibly unwelcome, as the impact of incoming European Union privacy law begins to be felt.

Professional users such as domain investors are most likely to be impacted by the changes.

The company hopes to announce how its services will be rejiggered to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation in the next few weeks, probably in February, but CEO Tim Chen spoke to DI yesterday in general terms about the law’s possible impact.

“There will be changes to the levels of service we offer currently, especially to any users of DomainTools that are not enterprises,” Chen said.

GDPR governs how personal data on EU citizens is captured, shared and processed. It deals with issues such as customer consent, the length of time such data may be stored, and the purposes for which it may be processed.

Given that DomainTools’ entire business model is based on capturing domain registrants’ contact information without their explicit consent, then storing, processing and sharing that data indefinitely, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the new law represents a possibly existential threat.

But while Chen says he’s “very concerned” about GDPR, he expects the use cases of his enterprise customers to be protected.

DomainTools no longer considers itself a Whois company, Chen said, it’s a security services company now. Only about 20% of its revenue now comes from the $99-a-month customers who pay to access services such as reverse Whois and historical Whois queries.

The rest comes from the 500-odd enterprise customers it has, which use the company’s data for purposes such as tracking down network abuse and intellectual property theft.

DomainTools is very much aligned here with the governments and IP lawyers that are pressing ICANN and European data protection authorities to come up with a way Whois data can still be made available for these “legitimate purposes”.

“We’re very focused on our most-important goal of making sure the cyber security and network security use cases for Whois data are represented in the final discussions on how this legislation is really going to land,” he said.

“There needs to be some level of access that is retained for uses that are very consistent with protecting the very constituents that this legislation is trying to protect from a privacy perspective,” he said.

The two big issues pressing on Chen’s mind from a GDPR perspective are the ability of the company to continue to aggregate Whois records from hundreds of TLDs and thousands of registrars, and its ability to continue to provide historical, archived Whois records — the company’s most-popular product after vanilla Whois..

These are both critical for customers responding to security issues or trying to hunt down serial cybersquatters and copyright infringers, Chen said.

“[Customers are] very concerned, because their ability to use this data as part of their incident response is critical, and the removal of the data from that process really does injure their ability to do their jobs,” he said.

How far these use cases will be protected under GDPR is still an open question, one largely to be determined by European DPAs, and DomainTools, like ICANN the rest of the domain industry, is still largely in discussion mode.

“Part of what we need to help DPAs understand is: how long is long enough?” Chen said. “Answering how long this data can be archived is very important.”

ICANN was recently advised by its lawyers to take its case for maintaining Whois in as recognizable form as possible to the DPAs and other European privacy bodies.

And governments, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, recently urged ICANN to continue to permit Whois access for “legitimate purposes”.

DomainTools is in a different position to most of the rest of the industry. In terms of its core service, it’s not a contracted party with ICANN, so perhaps will have to rely on hoping whatever the registries and registrars work out will also apply to its own offerings.

It’s also different in that it has no direct customer relationship with the registrants whose data it processes, nor does it have a contractual relationship with the companies that do have these customer relationships.

This could make the issue of consent — the right of registrant to have a say in how their data is processed and when it is deleted — tricky.

“We’re not in a position to get consent from domain owners to do what we do,” Chen said. “I think where we need to be more thoughtful is whether DomainTools needs to have a process where people can opt out of having their data processed.”

“When I think about consent, it’s not on the way in, because we just don’t have a way to do that, it’s allowing a way out… a mechanism where people can object to their data being processed,” he said.

How DomainTools’ non-enterprise customers and users will be affected should become clear when the company outlines its plans in the coming weeks.

But Chen suggested that most casual users should not see too much impact.

“The ability of anyone who has an interest in using Whois data, who needs it every now and then, for looking up a Whois record of a domain because they want to buy it as a domain investor for example, that should still be very possible after GDPR,” he said.

“I don’t think GDPR is aimed at individual, one-at-a-time use cases for data, I think it’s aimed at scalable abuse of the data for bad purposes,” he said.

“If you’re running a business in domain names and you need to get Whois at significant scale, and you need to evaluate that many domains for some reason, that’s where the impact may be,” he said.

Disclosure: I share a complimentary DomainTools account with several other domain industry bloggers.

EFF recommends against new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, July 28, 2017, Domain Policy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has recommended that domain registrants concerned about intellectual property “bullies” steer clear of new gTLDs.

The view is expressed in a new EFF report today that is particularly critical of policies in place at new gTLD portfolio registries Donuts and Radix.

The report (pdf) also expresses strong support for .onion, the pseudo-TLD available only to users of the Tor browser and routing network, which the EFF is a long-term supporter of.

The report makes TLD recommendations for “security against trademark bullies”, “security against identity theft and marketing”, “security against overseas speech regulators” and “security against copyright bullies”.

It notes that no one TLD is “best” on all counts, so presents a table explaining which TLD registries — a broad mix of the most popular gTLD and ccTLD registries — have which relevant policies.

For those afraid of trademark “bullies”, the EFF recommends against 2012-round new gTLDs on the basis that they all have the Uniform Rapid Suspension service. It singles out Donuts for special concern due to its Domain Protected Marks List, which adds an extra layer of protection for trademark owners.

On copyright, the report singles out Donuts and Radix for their respective “trusted notifier” schemes, which give the movie and music industries a hotline to report large-scale piracy web sites.

These are both well-known EFF positions that the organization has expressed in previous publications.

On the other two issues, the report recommends examining ccTLDs for those which don’t have to kowtow to local government speech regulations or publicly accessible Whois policies.

In each of the four areas of concern, the report suggests taking a look at .onion, while acknowledging that the pseudo-gTLD would be a poor choice if you actually want people to be able to easily access your web site.

While the opinions expressed in the report may not be surprising, the research that has gone into comparing the policies of 40-odd TLD registries covering hundreds of TLDs appears on the face of it to be solid and possibly the report’s biggest draw.

You can read it here (pdf).

US “threatens” Costa Rica over Pirate Bay domains

Kevin Murphy, June 16, 2017, Domain Policy

The US government has been threatening to “close down” Costa Rica’s .cr registry over its refusal to take down a Pirate Bay domain name, according to the registry.

Representatives of the US embassy in Costa Rica have been badgering NIC.cr to take down thepiratebay.cr since 2015, according to a letter from Pedro León Azofeifa, president of Academia Nacional de Ciencias, which runs the registry.

The letter claims:

These interactions with the United States Embassy have escalated with time and include great pressure since 2016 that is exemplified by several phone calls, emails and meetings urging our ccTLD to take down the domain, even though this would go against our domain name policies

According to the letter, a US official “has mentioned threats to close our registry, with repeated harassment regarding our practices and operation policies and even personal negative comments directed to our Executive Director”.

The letter was sent to the chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee 10 days ago, CC’d to senior ICANN, Costa Rican and US governmental figures, and has been circulated this week in the Latin American domain name community.

The form of the alleged threats to close the registry is not clear, but it should be noted that prior to October 1 last year the US Department of Commerce, via its now-relinquished oversight of ICANN, played a key role in the administration of the DNS root zone.

The Pirate Bay is of course a popular directory of BitTorrent links largely used to disseminate pirated copies of movies and music, much of it American-made.

The site has been TLD-hopping for years, as registries around the world shut down its domains for violations of their own local rules. It has been live on thepiratebay.cr since December 2014, when its Swedish operation was shut down by authorities.

The NIC.cr letter says that its own policies follow international “best practices” and allow it to take down domains when presented with a Costa Rican court order, but that “the pressure and harassment [from the US] to take down the domain name without its proper process and local court order persists”.

The US Department of Commerce even pressured its Costa Rican counterpart to investigate NIC.cr, but that probe concluded that the registry was acting within its procedures, according to the letter.

It’s not the first attempt to get rid of the Pirate Bay this year.

Public Interest Registry in February announced a “UDRP for copyright” proposal that would allow copyright holders to have piracy disputes heard by independent arbitrators. It looked like a way to get unloved thepiratebay.org domain taken down without PIR having to take unilateral action.

That proposal was shelved after an outcry from the industry and civil rights watchdogs.

In April, one of the Pirate Bay’s founders launched a piracy-friendly domain registration service.

Just this week, the European Court of Justice ruled, after seven years of legal fights, that the Pirate Bay infringes copyright, raising the possibility of the site being blocked in more European countries.

The NIC.cr letter is dated June 6. It has not yet been published by ICANN or the GAC.

Pirate Bay founder launches piracy-friendly domain privacy service

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2017, Domain Registrars

The founder of controversial BitTorrent search engine The Pirate Bay has entered the domain name market with a new proxy service.

It’s called Njalla, it’s based in a Caribbean tax haven, and it says it offers a higher level of privacy protection than you get anywhere else.

The company described itself in its inaugural blog post today like this:

Think of us as your friendly drunk (but responsibly so) straw person that takes the blame for your expressions. As long as you keep within the boundaries of reasonable law and you’re not a right-wing extremist, we’re for promoting your freedom of speech, your political weird thinking, your kinky forums and whatever.

Founder Peter Sunde was reluctant to describe Njalla as a proxy registration service, but it’s difficult to think of another way of describing it.

When you buy a domain via the company’s web site, the name is registered by Njalla for itself. You can still use the domain as you would with a regular registrar, but the name is “owned” by Njalla (1337 LLC, based in Saint Kitts & Nevis).

The company is a Tucows reseller via OpenSRS, and it supports almost all gTLDs and several ccTLDs (it’s declined to support Uniregistry due to recent price increase announcements).

Prices are rather industry standard, with a .com setting you back €15 ($16).

The big difference appears to be that the service doesn’t want to know anything about its registrants. You can sign up with just an email address or, unusually, an XMPP address. It doesn’t want to know your name, home address, or anything like that.

This means that whenever Njalla receives a legal request for the user’s identity, it doesn’t have much to hand over.

It’s based on Nevis due to the strong privacy laws there, Sunde said.

Under what circumstances Njalla would suspend service to a customer and hand over their scant private information appears to be somewhat vague and based on the subjective judgement or politics of its management.

“As long as you don’t hurt anyone else, we’ll let you do your thing,” Sunde said.

Child abuse material is verboten. Spam is in a “gray zone” (although forbidden by Njalla’s terms of service).

Copyright infringement appears to be just fine and dandy, which might not be surprising. Sunde founded The Pirate Bay in 2003 and spent time in prison in Sweden for assisting copyright infringement as a result.

“You don’t hurt people by putting a movie online,” Sunde said. “You do hurt someone by putting child porn or revenge porn or stuff like that… If you look at any statistics on file sharing, it proves that the more people file-share the more money goes into the ecosystem of the media.”

While this is likely to upset the IP lobby within the domain name community, I think there’s a possibility that existing ICANN policy will soon have an impact on Njalla’s ability to operate as it hopes.

ICANN is in the process of implementing a privacy/proxy services accreditation program that will require registrars to only work with approved, accredited proxy services.

Sunde thinks Njalla doesn’t fall into the ICANN definition of a proxy service, and said his lawyers agree.

Personally, I can’t see the distinction. I expect ICANN Compliance will probably have to make a call one way or the other one day after the accreditation system comes online.