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GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has seriously limited DomainTools’ access to its customers’ Whois records, pissing off DomainTools.

DomainTools CEO Tim Chen this week complained to DI that its access to Whois has been throttled back significantly in recent months, making it very difficult to keep its massive database of domain information up to date.

Chen said that DomainTools is currently only able to access GoDaddy’s Whois over port 43 at about 2% of the rate it had previously.

He said that this has been going on for about six months and that the market-leading registrar has been unresponsive to its requests to have previous levels restored.

“By throttling access to the data by 98% they’re defeating the ability of security practitioners to get data on GoDaddy domains,” Chen said. “It’s particularly troublesome because they [GoDaddy] are such a big part of DNS.”

“We have customers who say the quality of GoDaddy data is just degrading across the board, either through direct look-ups or in some of the DomainTools products themselves,” he said.

DomainTools customers include security professionals trying to hunt down the source of attacks and intellectual property interests trying to locate pirates and cybersquatters.

GoDaddy today confirmed to DI that it has been throttling DomainTools’ Whois access, and said that it’s part of ongoing anti-spam measures.

In recent years there’s been an increase in the amount of spam — usually related to web design, hosting, and SEO — sent to recent domain registrants using email addresses harvested from new Whois records.

GoDaddy, as the market-share leader in retail domain sales, takes a tonne of flak from customers who, unaware of standard Whois practice, think the company is selling their personal information to spammers.

This kind of Twitter exchange is fairly common on GoDaddy’s feed:

While GoDaddy is not saying that DomainTools is directly responsible for this kind of activity, throttling its port 43 traffic is one way the company is trying to counter the problem, VP of policy James Bladel told DI tonight.

“Companies like [DomainTools] present a challenge,” he said. “While we may know these folks, we don’t know who their customers are.”

But that’s just a part of the issue. GoDaddy was also concerned about the amount of resources DomainTools was consuming, and its own future legal responsibilities under the European Union’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.

“When [Chen] says they’re down to a fraction or a percentage of what they had previously, well what they had previously was they were updating and archiving Whois almost in real time,” Bladel said. “And that’s not going to fly.”

“That is not only, we feel, not congruent with our responsibilities to our customers’ data, but it’s also, later on down the road, exactly the kind of thing that GDPR and other regulations are designed to stop,” he said.

GDPR is the EU law that, when it fully kicks in in May, gives European citizens much more rights over the sharing and processing of their private data.

Bladel added that DomainTools is still getting more Whois access than other parties using port 43.

“They have a level of access that is much, much higher than what they would normally have as a registrar,” he said, “but much lower than I think they want, because they want to effectively download and keep current the entirety of the Whois database.”

I’m not getting a sense from GoDaddy that it’s likely to backtrack on its changes.

Indeed, the company also today announced that it from January 25 it will start to “mask” key elements of Whois records when queried over port 43.

GoDaddy told high-value customers such as domainers today that port 43 queries will no longer return the registrant’s first name, last name, email address or phone number.

Bulk Whois users such as registrars (and, I assume, DomainTools) that have been white-listed via the “GoDaddy Port43 Process” will continue to receive full records.

Its web-based Whois, which includes a CAPTCHA gateway to prevent scraping, will continue to function as normal.

Bladel said that these changes are NOT related to GDPR, nor to the fact that ICANN said a couple months back that it would not enforce compliance with Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, subject to certain conditions.

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.

Domainers up in arms as DomainTools pricing rockets

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2016, Domain Services

Domain investors are loudly complaining about DomainTools’ plan to double its prices and slash query limits.

Some are even calling for a boycott.

Effective June 25, all the existing non-enterprise membership tiers are being folded into a new “Personal” account, which costs $99 a month or $995 a year, DomainTools said.

Previously, customers on a “Professional” account paid $49.95 a month. Some were paying as little as $12 under older, discontinued Gold, Silver and Bronze plans.

If the price hike weren’t significant enough, the company is also reducing the number of queries customers can make.

Whois History reports have been slashed from 100 domains to 25, for example, as have Hosting History reports. The Brand Monitor tool has been reduced from 10 monitored strings to 3.

DomainTools offers a broad range of services in its standard bundle, and the cuts are pretty much across the board.

DomainTools said in an email to bloggers this week that a 30% discount will be offered on the first payment under the new plan for existing customers, adding:

The Personal Membership package adds four products that have never been offered before to individual members. Bulk Parsed Whois and Reverse Whois Research Mode have previously only been available to Enterprise members. In addition, we are including our newest product, Reverse IP Whois, which works like our Reverse Whois for domain Whois, but across IP Whois records. And finally, Personal Membership also includes 5 Domain Reports per month.

The company says that it is focusing more now on its enterprise security customers, where one imagines margins are higher than its mass-market domainer-oriented services.

Domainers, as you might expect, are not happy. Message boards and domainer blogs are filled with negative commentary.

There are currently 50 comments slamming the move on DNW, many saying they will quit the service, and a call for a boycott on NamePros

Some are predicting customers will flock to rivals DomainIQ and Whoisology.

Disclosure: myself and several other domain industry bloggers are on complimentary plans and will not be affected by these changes. In some months, the new Personal plan would have been adequate for my needs; in others, not so much.

.pw sees strongest growth in China

The recently launched .pw domain, managed by Directi, is doing particularly well in China, according to an early analysis from DomainTools.

The survey of data from name servers supporting 63,736 .pw domains found that well over half — 38,356 — were on Chinese IP addresses.

The Chinese registrar XinNet, which promotes low-cost .pw heavily on its home page, runs the second-largest number of name servers for the ccTLD’s registrants, DomainTools said.

According to the data, Directi’s own PrivacyProtect.org service is the third-largest name server host for .pw, followed by NameCheap and Sedo.

While Directi said from the outset that it expected to see growth from less-developed regions of the world, it has also come under fire recently for a massive spam outbreak from .pw addresses.

The ccTLD already has over 100,000 domains, according to the company.

Five registrars on the ICANN naughty step

Kevin Murphy, April 28, 2012, Domain Registrars

ICANN has sent breach notices to five domain name registrars, including two owned by Epik and DomainTools, for failing to cooperate with a Whois accuracy audit.

InTrust Domains, Planet Online, Server Plan, Infocom Network and DomainAllies.com did not respond to ICANN’s 2011 Whois Data Reminder Policy audit, according to ICANN.

The WDRP is the longstanding policy that requires all ICANN-accredited registrars to remind their customers to keep their Whois records up to date once a year.

The annual WDRP audit asks registrars to state how many reminders they sent out and how many Whois records were updated as a result, among other things.

The non-compliant registrars, with the exception of Server Plan, are also evidently past due paying their ICANN accreditation fees, according to the breach notices.

All five registrars have been given 15 days to rectify the problems or risk losing their accreditations.

Given that the audit is, I believe, a simple web-based form, I don’t think anyone is going to go out of business as a result of these breaches.

It’s interesting to dig a little bit into who owns these registrars.

DomainAllies.com belongs to DomainTools parent Thought Convergence.

InTrust, which has come in for criticism for shady marketing practices under its previous management, was acquired by Epik last July.

Planet Online, meanwhile, is one of those odd registrars that hides its own contact information behind a Whois privacy service (though its web site does carry a physical address).