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Chehade declines to backtrack on domain “hogging” comments

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade responded yesterday to anger from domain investors over recent comments in which he talked about “hogging” domain names and implied a link to cybersquatting.

But he did not, at least as far as I understood his explanation, backtrack on his original remarks.

Chehade was cheekily asked his current thoughts on domain “hoggers” by blogger David Goldstein during a press conference at the ICANN 52 meeting in Singapore yesterday.

This is the entirety of his reply:

I think the statement I made to a different media outlet about that was conflated to signify I was including in this all those who are in the domain name business. And that’s not true. There are those that do this as a business and do it very well and actually enhance the market and there are those that do it and make the business and the market less attractive and less desirable. So I think any insinuation that that statement engulfs everyone that is in this business is not true. As you know very well I’ve a very big supporter of the industry groups and was one of the people who was frankly very happy when the Domain Name Association was created and I attended their first formation meeting. This is where we stand and we continue to feel good about how this market is evolving and how these players are making this a good market that serves the public interest.

Having listened to it a few times, I wonder whether Chehade deliberately didn’t backtrack on his original remarks, or whether he doesn’t quite understand why they caused offense in the first place.

A couple of weeks back, Chehade was talking to the Huffington Post about new gTLDs during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The interviewer asked about “concerns about a land-grab going on” among domain speculators.

It was a bit of a silly question, if you ask me. A speculative land-grab is pretty low down the list of concerns held by critics of the new gTLD program. Regardless, Chehade replied:

The reality is, the more there are names, the less people will actually be hogging names in order to charge a lot for them. Because if somebody took your name on dot X, you can go get another name on dot Y now.

I’d personally agree with that characterization of the program. It’s meant to make finding a good name at a cheap price easier. “Hogging” was probably a poor choice of words, but Chehade was talking off the cuff so I could give him a pass.

But later in the same reply, he used the term “cybersquatting” in such a way as to make it easy to infer he was conflating domain investing with cybersquatting. That’s a loaded term that is usually reserved for trademark infringement, at least when used inside the industry.

Obviously this was guaranteed to get investors’ hackles up.

First up with the hackles was Mike Berkens, who called Chehade out on The Domains, saying he “throws large domain investors under the bus and then backs up the bus and rolls over them again”.

Berkens pointed out, quite reasonably I thought, that ICANN is funded to a great extent by domain investors. He estimates that he alone pays ICANN about $15,000 a year in the fees that are collected at the point of registration and renewal.

By some estimates, which may even be conservative, about a third of new gTLD registrations to date have been made to speculators.

Berkens made the even better point that many of the people who have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the new gTLD program — Uniregistry’s Frank Schilling, XYZ.com’s Daniel Negari and multiple Donuts executives, for example — made their fortunes investing in second-level domains.

He concluded:

All and all some pretty ignorant statements in our opinion made by the CEO of ICANN and an insult to those domain investors that are some of the biggest buyer’s of new gTLD’s domain names who have paid ICANN a small fortune over the years allowing them to travel the world, pay millions a year in salary and other benefits.

Phil Corwin Jeremiah Johnston of the Internet Commerce Association followed up a few days ago with an open letter to Chehade which explained the outrage in slightly more formal and lawyerly way, with all the apostrophes in the right places. He wrote:

The ICA objects to your statement as it expresses a disdainful view towards the legitimate activity of domain investing, a hostile view of domain investors who are significant ICANN stakeholders who are deeply affected by its policies, a lack of awareness of the market realities of domains as an asset class, and an unwarranted promotion of new gTLD domains over those at legacy gTLDs.

Domain investors are not “hogs” and they most certainly are not deliberate trademark infringers, or “cybersquatters”. It is not clear what you intended by your reference to “cybersquatting”, though it is concerning that you used this pejorative term just after making disparaging remarks about domain investors.

With all these criticisms in mind, let’s go back and parse what Chehade said in Singapore yesterday.

First, he said his remarks had been wrongly “conflated to signify I was including in this all those who are in the domain name business”.

I’m not sure that’s what happened. I’m pretty certain Berkens and his commenters, and then Corwin Johnston, got the hump purely because Chehade dismissed domain investing as “hogging” and then implied a link between investing and trademark infringement.

Who is Chehade talking about when he draws a distinction between those who “enhance the market” and those who “make the business and the market less attractive”?

Is the line drawn between the trademark infringers and the legitimate investors, or its it drawn somewhere else?

Why did Chehade go on to express his support for the DNA, a sell-side trade group funded largely by registries and registrars? Was he drawing the line between regular second-level domainers (hogging) and those that in many cases are essentially just top-level domainers (enhancing)?

Chehade was given the opportunity to backtrack and he didn’t take it.

I’m not a domainer, but if I were I don’t think I’d be particularly satisfied about that.

.xyz press release yanked for “encouraging cybersquatting”

Kevin Murphy, January 13, 2015, Domain Registries

XYZ.com has withdrawn a month-old press release following allegations that it encouraged cybersquatting in .xyz.

The December 3 release concerned the release of 18,000 .xyz domains that were previously blocked due to ICANN’s policy on name collisions.

The release highlighted “trademarked names such as Nike, Hulu, Netflix, Skype, Pepsi, Audi and Deloitte” that were becoming available, according to World Trademark Review, which reported the story yesterday.

Five of the seven brands highlighted have since been registered by apparent cybersquatters, WTR reported.

The .xyz press release has since been withdrawn from the web sites on which it appeared, and registry production manager Shayan Rostam told WTR that the intention was to encourage brand owners to register, rather than cybersquatters.

“Cybersquatting has a negative effect on our business and we would never take any action to encourage cybersquatting,” he reportedly said.

Read the WTR article here.

“Cyberflight” rules coming to UDRP next July

Kevin Murphy, November 18, 2014, Domain Policy

It will soon be much harder for cybersquatters to take flight to another registrar when they’re hit with a UDRP complaint.

From July 31 next year, all ICANN-accredited registrars will be contractually obliged to lock domain names that are subject to a UDRP and trademark owners will no longer have to tip off the registrant they’re targeting.

Many major registrars lock domain names under UDRP review already, but there’s no uniformity across the industry, either in terms of what a lock entails or when it is implemented. Under the amended UDRP policy, a “lock” is now defined as:

a set of measures that a registrar applies to a domain name, which prevents at a minimum any modification to the registrant and registrar information by the Respondent, but does not affect the resolution of the domain name or the renewal of the domain name.

Registrars will have two business days from the time they’re notified about the UDRP to put the lock in place.

Before the lock is active, the registrants themselves will not be aware they’ve been targeted by a complaint — registrars are banned from telling them and complainants no longer have to send them a copy of the complaint.

If the complaint is dismissed or withdrawn, registrars have one business day to remove the lock.

Because these change reduce the 20-day response window, registrants will be able to request an additional four calendar days (to account for weekends, I assume) to file their responses and the request will be automatically granted by the UDRP provider.

The new policy was brought in to stop “cyberflight”, a relatively rare tactic whereby cybersquatters transfer their domains to a new registrar to avoid losing their domains.

The policy was approved by the Generic Names Supporting Organization in August last year and approved by the ICANN board a month later. Since then, ICANN staff has been working on implementation.

The time from the first GNSO preliminary issue report (May 27, 2011) to full implementation of the policy (July 31, 2015) will be 1,526 days.

You can read a redlined version of the UDRP rules here (pdf).

Former pop star is .uk’s 10,000th cybersquatting case

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2014, Domain Registries

Nominet has processed its 10,000th cybersquatting dispute, according to the company.

Conveniently for the .uk registry’s public relations department, the complainant in the case was Aston Merrygold, a well-known former member of the pop group JLS.

He won astonmerrygold.co.uk, which was registered to London-based Martyn O’Brien, using Nominet’s 12-year-old Dispute Resolution Service.

Merrygold does not have a trademark covering his name, but the DRS panelist found that he had rights anyway, due to his relative fame and numerous TV appearances.

O’Brien registered the name in 2008, along with the names of Merrygold’s band-mates, after JLS appeared in the final of TV talent show The X Factor.

JLS had a brief but successful pop career before breaking up last year. Merrygold currently intends to go solo, which presumably inspired the DRS complaint.

Nominet also announced today that Tony Willoughby, who has been chair of the DRS panel since 2002, has stepped aside and will be replaced by DRS appeals panelist Nick Gardner.

Whois “killer” is a recipe for a clusterfuck

Kevin Murphy, June 13, 2014, Domain Policy

An ICANN working group has come up with a proposal to completely replace the current Whois system for all gTLDs.

Outlined in 180 recommendations spread over 166 pages (pdf), it’s designed to settle controversies over Whois that have raged for 15 years or more, in one fell swoop.

But it’s a sprawling, I’d say confusing, mess that could turn domain name registration and the process of figuring out who owns a domain name into an unnecessarily bureaucratic pain in the rear.

That’s if the proposal is ever accepted by the ICANN community, which, while it’s early days, seems like a challenge.

The Expert Working Group, which was controversially convened by ICANN president Fadi Chehade in December 2012, proposes a Registration Data Service that would ultimately replace Whois.

It’s a complex document, which basically proposes rebuilding Whois from the ground up based on ideas first explored by George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams.

Having read it, I’ll do my best in this post to explain what the proposed Registration Data Service seems to entail and why I think it seems like a lot of hard work for very little benefit.

I note in advance as a matter of disclosure that the RDS as proposed would very possibly disenfranchise me professionally, making it harder for me to do my job. I explain why later in this post.

I also apologize in advance for, and will correct if notified of, any errors. It’s taken me a week from its publication to read and digest the proposal and I’m still not sure it’s all sunk in.

Anyway, first:

What’s RDS?

RDS would be a centralized Whois database covering all domains in all gTLDs, new and old, operated by a single entity.

What’s in an RDS record?

Under the hood, RDS records wouldn’t look a heck of a lot different than Whois records look today, in terms of what data they store.

There would be some new optional elements, such as social media user names, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same data as we’re used to seeing in Whois records today.

The big difference is which of these elements would be visible by default to an anonymous internet user doing a regular Whois look-up somewhere.

Some fields would be “public” and some would be “gated” or hidden. Some fields would always be public and some could be toggled between public and gated by the registrant.

Gated fields would not be visible to people doing normal Whois look-ups. To see gated data, you’d need to be accredited to a certain role (cop, trademark owner, etc) and have an RDS account.

By default, much of the data about the “registrant” — including their name, physical address, country, and phone number — would be gated.

No, you’re not reading that wrong — the name of the registrant would be hidden from regular Whois users by default. Their email address, however, would be always be public.

There would also be up to six “Purpose Based Contacts” — an Admin Contact, a Legal Contact, a Technical Contact, an Abuse Contact, a Privacy/Proxy Contact and a Business Contact.

So, for example, a registrant could specify his registrar as his technical PBC and his lawyer as his legal PBC.

The admin, legal, technical and abuse contacts would be mandatory, and would default to the registrant’s own personal contact info.

A newly registered domain would not be activated in the DNS until the mandatory PBCs had been provided.

Each of these four mandatory PBCs would have different levels of disclosure for each data element.

For example, the Admin PBC would be able to hide their mailing address and phone number (both public by default) but not their name, email address or country.

The Legal PBC would not be able to opt out of having their mailing address disclosed, but the Technical and Abuse PBCs would be able to opt out of disclosing pretty much everything including their own name.

Those are just examples. Several tables starting on page 49 of the report (pdf) give all the details about which data fields would be disclosed and which could be hidden.

I think it’s expected by the EWG that most registrants would just accept the defaults and publish the same data in each PBC, in much the same way as they do today.

“This PBC approach preserves simplicity for Registrants with basic contact needs and offers additional granularity for Registrants with more extensive contact needs,” the EWG says.

Who gets the see the hidden stuff?

In order to see the hidden or “gated” elements, you’d have to be an accredited user of the centralized RDS system.

The level of access you got to the hidden data would depend on the role assigned to your RDS account.

The name of the registrant, for example, would be available to anyone with an RDS account.

If you wanted access to the registrant’s mailing address or phone number, you’d need an RDS account that accredited you for one or more of seven defined purposes:

  • Domain Name Control (ie, the registrant herself)
  • Domain Name Certification (ie SSL Certificate Authorities)
  • Business Domain Name Purchase/Sale (anyone who says they might be interested in buying the domain in question)
  • Academic/Public Interest DNS Research
  • Legal Actions (eg lawyers investigating fraud or trademark infringement)
  • Regulatory/Contractual Enforcement (could be ICANN-related, such as UDRP, or unrelated stuff like tax investigations)
  • Criminal Investigation/DNS Abuse Mitigation

Hopefully this all makes sense so far, but it gets more complicated.

Beware of the leopard!

In today’s gTLD environment, Whois records are either stored with the registry or the registrar. You can do Whois lookups on the registrar/y’s site, or via a third-party commercial service.

As a registrant, you need only interact with your registrar. As a Whois user, you don’t need to sign up for an account anywhere, unless you want value-added services from a company such as DomainTools.

Under RDS, a whole lot of other entities start to come into play.

First, there’s RDS itself — a centralized Whois replacement.

It’s basically two databases. One contains contact details, each record containing a unique Contact ID identifier. The other database maps Contact IDs to the PBCs for each gTLD domain name.

It’s unclear who’d manage this service, but it looks like IBM is probably gunning for the contract.

Second, there would be Validators.

A Validator’s job would be to collect and validate contact information from registrants and PBCs.

While registrars and registries could also act as Validators — and the EWG envisages most registrars becoming Validators — this is essentially a new entity/role in the domain name ecosystem.

Third and Fourth, we’ve got newly created Accrediting Bodies and Accreditation Operators.

These entities would be responsible for accrediting users of the RDS system (that is, people who want to do a simple goddamn Whois lookup).

The EWG explains that an Accrediting Body “establishes membership rules, terms of service, and application and enforcement processes, etc., for a given RDS User community.”

An Accreditation Operator would “create and manage RDS User accounts, issue RDS access credentials, authenticate RDS access requests, and provide first-level abuse handling”.

Because it’s not complicated enough already, each industry (lawyers, academics, police, etc) would have their own different combination of Accrediting Bodies and Accreditation Operators.

Who benefits from all this?

The reason the EWG was set up in the first place was to try to resolve the conflict between those who think Whois accuracy should be more strictly enforced (generally law enforcement and IP owners) and those who think there should be greater registrant privacy (generally civil society types).

In the middle you’ve got the registries and registrars, who are generally resistant to anything that adds friction to their shopping carts or causes even moderate implementation costs.

The debate has been raging for years, and the EWG was told to:

1) define the purpose of collecting and maintaining gTLD registration data, and consider how to safeguard the data, and 2) provide a proposed model for managing gTLD directory services that addresses related data accuracy and access issues, while taking into account safeguards for protecting data.

So the EWG proposal could be seen as successful if a) privacy advocates are happy and b) trademark lawyers and the FBI are happy, c) registrars/ries are happy and d) Whois users are happy.

Are the privacy dudes happy?

No, they’re not.

The EWG only had one full-on privacy advocate: Stephanie Perrin, who’s a bit of a big deal when it comes to data privacy in Canada, having held senior privacy roles in public and private sectors there.

Perrin isn’t happy. Perrin thinks the RDS proposal as it stands won’t protect regular registrants’ privacy.

She wrote a Dissenting Report that seems to have been intended as an addendum to the EWG’s official report, but it was not published by the EWG or ICANN. The EWG report makes only a vague, fleeting reference, in a footnote, to the fact that the was any dissent at all.

Milton Mueller at the Internet Governance Project got his hands on it regardless and put it out there earlier this week.

Perrin disagrees with the recommendation (outlined above) that each domain name must have a Legal Contact (or Legal PBC) who is not permitted to hide their name and mailing address from public view.

She argues, quite reasonably I think, that regular registrants don’t have lawyers they can outsource this function to, which means their own name and mailing address will comprise their publicly visible Legal PBC.

This basically voids any privacy protection they’d get from having these details “gated” in the “registrant” record of the RDS. Perrin wrote:

the purpose of the gate is to screen out bad actors from harassing innocent registrants, deter identity theft, and ensure that only legitimate complaints arrive directly at the door of the registrants. It is also to protect the ability of registrants to express themselves anonymously. Placing all contact data outside the gate defeats certain aspects of having a gate in the first place.

The EWG report envisages the use of privacy/proxy services for people who don’t want their sensitive data published publicly.

But we already have privacy/proxy services today, so I’m unclear what benefit RDS brings to the table in terms of privacy protection.

It’s also worth noting that there are no circumstances under which a registrant’s email address is protected, not even from anonymous RDS queries. So there’s no question of RDS stopping Whois-based spam.

Are the trademark dudes going to be happy?

I don’t know. They do seem to be getting a better deal out of the recommendations than the other side (there were at least three intellectual property advocates on the EWG) but if you’re in the IP community the report still leaves much to be desired.

The RDS proposal would create a great big centralized repository of domain registrant information, which would probably be located in a friendly jurisdiction such as the US.

That would make tracking down miscreants a bit easier than in today’s distributed Whois environment.

RDS would also include a WhoWas service, so users can see who has historically owned domain names, and a Reverse Query service, so that users can pull up a list of all the other domains that share the same contact field(s).

Both services (commercially available via the likes of DomainTools already) would prove valuable when collating data for a UDRP complaint or cybersquatting lawsuit.

But it’s important to note that while the EWG report says all contact information should be validated, it stops short of saying that it should be authenticated.

That’s a big difference. Validation would reveal whether a mailing address actually exists, but not whether the registrant actually lives there.

You’d need authentication — something law enforcement and IP interests have been pushing for but do not seem to have received with the EWG proposal — for that.

The EWG suggests that giving registrants more control over which bits of their data are public will discourage them from providing phony contact information for Whois/RDS.

The RDS proposes a lot more carrot than stick on this count.

But if Perrin is correct that it’s a false comfort (given that your name and address will be published as Legal PBC anyway) then wouldn’t a registrant be just as motivated to call themselves Daffy Duck, or use a proxy/privacy service, as they are today?

Are the registrar dudes going to be happy?

If the EWG’s recommendations become a reality registrars could get increased friction in their sales path, depending on how disruptive it is to create a “Contact ID” and populate all the different PBCs.

I think it’s certainly going to increase demand on support channels, as customers try to figure out the new regime.

Remember, the simple requirement to click on a link in an email is causing registrants and registrars all kinds of bother, including suspended domains, under recently introduced rules.

And there’s obviously going to be a bunch of (potentially costly) up-front implementation work registrars will need to do to hook themselves into RDS and the other new entities the system relies on.

I doubt the registrars are going to wholeheartedly embrace the proposal en masse, in other words.

Is Kevin Murphy happy?

No, I’m not happy.

It bugs me, personally, that the EWG completely ignored the needs of the media in its report. It strikes me as a bit of a slap in the face.

The “media” and “bloggers” (I’m definitely in one of those categories) would be given the same rights to gated RDS data as the “general public”, under the EWG proposal.

In other words, no special privileges and no ability to access the registrant name and address fields of an RDS record.

RDS may well give somebody who owns a trademark (such as a reverse domain name hijacker or a sunrise gamer) more rights to Whois records than the New York Times or The Guardian.

That can’t be cool, can it?

Murphy, brah, why you gotta cuss in your headline?

Good question. I do use swearwords on DI occasionally, but only to annoy people who don’t like them, and usually only in posts dated April 1 or in stories that seem to deserve it.

This post is dated June 13.

I think I’ve established that the EWG’s proposal as it stands today is a pretty big overhaul of the current system and that it’s not immediately obvious how the benefits to all sides warrant the massive effort that will have to be undertaken to get RDS to replace Whois.

But the clusterfuckery is going to begin not with the implementation of the proposal, but with the attempt to pass it through the ICANN process.

The proposal has to pass through the ICANN community before becoming a reality.

The Expert Working Group has no power under the ICANN bylaws.

It was created by Chehade while he was still relatively new to the CEO’s job and did not yet appreciate how seriously community members take their established procedures for creating policy.

I think it was a pretty decent idea — getting a bunch of people in a room and persuading them to think outside the box, in an effort to find radical solutions to a a long-stagnant debate.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the EWG’s proposals don’t become law until they’ve been subject to the Generic Names Supporting Organization’s lengthy Policy Development Process.

Some GNSO members were not happy when the EWG was first announced — they thought their sovereignty was being usurped by the uppity new CEO — and they’re probably not going to be happy about some of the language the EWG has chosen to use in its final report.

The EWG said:

The proposed RDS, while not perfect, reflects carefully crafted and balanced compromises with interdependent elements that should not be separated.

The RDS should be adopted as a whole. Adopting some but not all of the design principles recommended herein undermines benefits for the entire ecosystem.

It’s actually quite an audacious turn of phrase for a working group with no actual authority under ICANN bylaws.

It sounds a bit like “take it or leave it”.

But there’s no chance whatsoever of the report being adopted wholesale.

It’s going into the GNSO process, where the same vested interests (IP, LEA, registry, registrar, civil society) that have kept the debate stagnant for the duration of ICANN’s existence will continue to try (and probably fail) to come to an agreement about how Whois should evolve.