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Chehade says “no delay” as Verisign drops a security bomb on ICANN

Kevin Murphy, March 29, 2013, Domain Policy

Verisign today said that the new gTLD program presents risks to the security of the internet, but ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told DI that he’s not expecting any new delays.

The .com behemoth tonight delivered a scathing review of the security and stability risks of launching new gTLDs on ICANN’s current timetable.

The new Verisign report catalogs the myriad ways in which ICANN is not ready to start approving new gTLDs, and the various security problems they could cause if launched without due care.

It strongly suggests that ICANN should delay the program until its concerns are addressed.

But Chehade, in an exclusive interview with DI tonight, rebutted the already-emerging conspiracy theories and said: “There’s nothing new here that would cause me to predict a new delay.”

What does the Verisign report say?

It’s a 21-page document, and it covers a lot of ground.

The gist of it is that ICANN is rushing to launch new gTLDs without paying enough attention to the potential security and stability risks that a vast influx of new gTLDs could cause.

It covers about a dozen main points, but here are the highlights:

  • Certificate authorities and browser makers are not ready. CAs have long issued certificates for use on organizations’ internal networks. In many cases, these certs will use TLDs that only exist on that internal network. A company might have a private .mail TLD, for example, and use certs to secure those domains for its users. The CA/Browser Forum, which coordinates CAs and browser makers, has decided (pdf) to deprecate these certs, but not until October 2016. This, Verisign says, creates a “vulnerability window” of three years during which attackers could exploit clashes between certs on internal TLDs and new gTLDs.
  • Root server operators are not ready. The organizations that run the 13 DNS root servers do not currently coordinate their performance metrics, Verisign said. This makes it difficult to see what impact new gTLDs will have on root server stability. “The current inability to view the root server system’s performance as a whole presents a risk when combined with the impending delegation of the multitude of new gTLDs,” Verisign said.
  • Root zone automation isn’t done yet. ICANN, Verisign and the US Department of Commerce are responsible for adding new gTLDs to the root zone, and work on automating the “TLD add” process is not yet complete. Verisign reckons this could cause “data integrity” problems at the root.
  • The Trademark Clearinghouse is not ready. Delays in finalizing the TMCH technical specs mean registries haven’t had sufficient time to build their interfaces and test them, and the TMCH itself is a potential single point of failure with an unknown attack profile.
  • Universal acceptance of new TLDs. Verisign points out that new gTLDs won’t be immediately available to users when they go live due to lack of software support. It points specifically to the ill-maintained Public Suffix List, used by browsers to set cookie boundaries, as a potential risk factor.
  • A bunch of other stuff. The report highlights issues such as zone file access, data escrow, Whois and pre-delegation testing where Verisign reckons ICANN has not given registries enough time to prepare.

Basically, Verisign has thrown pretty much every risk factor it can think of into the document.

Some of the issues of concern have been well-discussed in the ICANN community at large, others not so much.

Yeah, yeah, but what did Fadi say?

Chehade told DI this evening that he was surprised by the report. He said he’s been briefed on its contents today and that there’s “nothing new” in it. The program is “on track”, he said.

“What is most surprising here is that there is nothing new,” he said. “I’m trying to get my finger on what is new here and I can’t find it.”

“It was very surprising to see this cornucopia of things put together,” he said. “I’m struggling to see how the Trademark Clearinghouse has a security impact, for example.”

He added that some of Verisign’s other concerns, such as the fact that the Emergency Back-End Registry Operator is not yet up and running, are confusing given that existing TLDs don’t have EBEROs.

The report could be divided into two buckets, he said: those things related to ICANN’s operational readiness and those things related to the DNS root.

“Are these operational issues really security and stability risks, and given that we can only launch TLDs when these things are done… what’s the issue there?” he said.

On the DNS root issues, he pointed to a November 2012 report, signed by Verisign, that said the root is ready to take 1,000 new gTLDs a year or 100 a week.

So the Conspiracy Theory is wrong?

ICANN timelineWhen ICANN held a webinar for new gTLD applicants earlier this week, Chehade spent an inordinate amount of time banging home the point that security and stability concerns underpin every stage of the new gTLD program’s timetable.

As this slide from his presentation (click to enlarge) illustrates, security, stability and resiliency or “SSR” is the foundation of every timing assumption.

He said during the webinar:

Nothing will trump the gTLD process, nothing, but the SSR layer. The SSR layer is paramount. It is our number one responsibility to the internet community. Nothing will be done that jeopardizes the security and stability of the internet, period.

At any time if we as a community do not believe that all relevant security and stability matters have been addressed, if we do not believe that’s the case, the program freezes, period.

There is too much riding on the DNS. Hundreds of billions of dollars of commerce. Some may say livelihoods. We will not jeopardize it, not on my watch, not during my administration.

During the webinar, I was lurking on an unofficial chat room of registries, registrars and others, where the mood at that point could be encapsulated by: “Shit, what does Chehade know that he’s not telling us?”

Most people listening to the webinar were immediately suspicious that Chehade was expecting to receive some last-minute security and stability advice and that he was preparing the ground for delay.

The Verisign report was immediately taken as confirmation that their suspicions were correct.

It seemed quite likely that ICANN knew in advance that the report was coming down the pike and was not-so-subtly readying applicants for a serious SSR discussion in Beijing a little over a week from now.

When I asked Chehade a few times whether he knew the Verisign report was coming in advance, he declined to give a straight answer.

My feeling is he probably did, though he may not have known precisely what it was going to say. The question is perhaps less relevant given what he said about its contents.

But what Chehade thinks right now is probably not the biggest concern for new gTLD applicants.

The GAC’s reaction is now critical

The Verisign document could be seen as pure GAC fodder. How the Governmental Advisory Committee reacts to the report, which was CC’d to the US Department of Commerce, is now key.

The GAC has been banging on about root system stability for years and will, in my view, lap up anything that seems to prove that it was right all along.

The GAC will raise the Verisign report with ICANN in Beijing and, if it doesn’t like what it hears, it might advise delay. GAC advice is a lot harder for ICANN’s board to ignore than a self-serving Verisign report.

What’s Verisign playing at?

So why did Verisign issue the report now? I’ve been unable to get the company on the phone at this late hour, but I’ve asked some other industry folk for their responses.

Verisign’s super-lucrative .com contract is the obvious place to start theorizing.

Even though the company has over 200 new gTLD back-end contracts — largely with dot-brand applicants — .com is its cash cow and new gTLDs are a potential threat to that business.

The company has sounded a little more aggressive — talking about enforcing its patents and refusing to comply with ICANN’s audits — since the US Department of Commerce ordered a six-year .com price freeze last November.

But Chehade would not speculate too much about Verisign’s motives.

“I can’t read why this report and why now,” Chehade said. “Especially when there’s nothing new in it. That’s not for me to figure out. It’s for me to look at this report with a critical eye and understand if there’s something we’re not addressing. If there is, and we find it, we’ll address it.”

He pointed to a flurry of phone calls and emails to his desk after the Initial Evaluation results started getting published last week for a possible reason for the report’s timing.

“I think the real change that’s happened in the last few months is that the new gTLD program is now on track and for the first time people are seeing it coming,” he said.

Competitors were more blunt.

“It’s a bloody long report,” said ARI Registry Services CEO Adrian Kinderis. “Had they put the same amount of effort into working with ICANN, we’d be a lot better off on the particular issues.”

TAS down for at least another week

Kevin Murphy, April 21, 2012, Domain Registries

If you’re just joining us, welcome to the ICANN community.

The TLD Application System will be offline for another week, possibly more, as ICANN struggles to deal with the fallout from its embarrassing data leakage bug.

ICANN had promised an update today on the timing of the reopening of TAS, which was taken offline April 12 just 12 hours before the new gTLD application filing deadline arrived.

But what applicants got instead was a promise to provide another timing update a week from now.

Chief operating officer Akram Atallah said in a statement:

identifying which applicants may have been affected by the technical glitch, and determining who may have been able to see someone else’s data, require extensive analysis of a very large data set. This is a time-consuming task, but it is essential to ensure that all potentially affected applicants are accurately identified and notified.

Until that process is complete, we are unable to provide a specific date for reopening the application system.

In order to give all applicants notice and an opportunity to review and complete their applications, upon reopening the system we will keep it open for at least five business days.

No later than 27 April 2012 we will provide an update on the reopening of the system and the publication of the applied-for new domain names.

So the best-case scenario, if these dates hold up, would see TAS coming back online Monday, April 30 and closing Friday, May 4.

The April 30 target date for the Big Reveal is clearly no longer possible.

ICANN has stated previously that it expects to take two weeks between the closing of the application window and the revelation of the list of gTLDs being applied for.

The Big Reveal could therefore be postponed until mid-May, almost a month from now.

Any applicant who has already booked flights and hotels in order to attend one of the various reveal events currently being planned by third parties may find themselves out of pocket.

Regular ICANN participants are of course accustomed to delay.

ICANN’s image problem now is rather with the hundreds of companies interfacing with the organization for the first time, applying for new gTLDs, which may be wondering whether this kind of thing is par for the course.

Well, yes, frankly, it is.

That said, the time to avoid this problem was during testing, before the application window opened in January.

Now that the bug has manifested, it’s probably in most people’s best interests for ICANN to fully understand went wrong and what impact it could have had on which applicants. This takes time.