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In GDPR case, ICANN ready to fight Tucows to the bitter end

Kevin Murphy, June 14, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has appealed its recent court defeat as it attempts to force a Tucows subsidiary to carry on collecting full Whois data from customers.

The org said yesterday that it is taking its lawsuit against Germany-based EPAG to a higher court and has asked it to bounce the case up to the European Court of Justice, as the first test case of the new General Data Protection Regulation.

In its appeal, an English translation (pdf) of which has been published, ICANN argues that the Higher Regional Court of Cologne must provide an interpretation of GDPR in order to rule on its request for an injunction.

And if it does, ICANN says, then it is obliged by the GDPR itself to refer that question to the ECJ, Europe’s highest judicial authority.

The case concerns Tucows’ refusal to carry on collecting contact information about the administrative and technical contacts for each domain name it sells, which it is contractually obliged to do under ICANN’s Whois policy.

These are the Admin-C and Tech-C fields that complement the registrant’s own contact information, which Tucows is of course still collecting.

Tucows says that these extra fields are unnecessary, and that GDPR demands it minimize the amount of data it collects to only that which it strictly needs to execute the registration contact.

It also argues that, if the Admin-C and Tech-C are third parties, it has no business collecting any data on them at all.

According to Tucows legal filings, more than half of its 10 million domains have identical data for all three contacts, and in more than three quarters of cases the registrant and Admin-C are identical.

In its appeal, ICANN argues that the data is “crucial for the objectives of a secure domain name system, including but not limited to the legitimate purposes of consumer protection,
investigation of cybercrime, DNS abuse and intellectual property protection and law enforcement needs”.

ICANN uses Tucows’ own numbers against it, pointing out that if Tucow has 7.5 million domains with shared registrant and Admin-C data, it therefore has 2.5 million domains where the Admin-C is a different person or entity, proving the utility of these records.

It says that registrars must continue to collect the disputed data, at the very least if it has secured consent from the third parties named.

ICANN says that nothing in the Whois policy requires personal data to be collected on “natural persons” — Admin-C and Tech-C could quite easily be legal persons — therefore there is no direct clash with GDPR, which only covers natural persons.

Its appeal, in translation, reads: “the GDPR is irrelevant if no data about natural persons are collected. In this respect, the Defendant is contractually obliged to collect such data, and failure to do so violates its contract with the Applicant.”

It goes on to argue that even if the registrant chooses to provide natural-person data, that’s still perfectly fine as a “legitimate purpose” under GDPR.

ICANN was handed a blow last month after a Bonn-based court refused to give it an injunction obliging EPAG (and, by inference, all registrars) to continue collecting Admin-C and Tech-C.

The lower court had said that registrants would be able to continue to voluntarily provide Admin-C and Tech-C, but ICANN’s appeal points out that this is not true as EPAG is no longer requesting or collecting this data.

In ICANN’s estimation, the lower court declined to comment on the GDPR implications of its decision.

It says the appeals court, referred to in translation as the “Senate”, cannot avoid interpreting GDPR if it has any hope of ruling on the injunction request.

Given the lack of GDPR case law — the regulation has only been in effect for a few weeks — ICANN reckons the German court is obliged by GDPR itself to kick the can up to the ECJ.

It says: “If the Senate is therefore convinced that the outcome of this procedure depends on the interpretation of certain provisions of the GDPR, the Senate must refer these possible questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling”.

It adds that should a referral happen it should happen under the ECJ’s “expedited” procedures.

An ECJ ruling has been in ICANN’s sights for some time; late last year CEO Goran Marby was pointing out that a decision from the EU’s top court would probably be the only way full legal clarity on GDPR’s intersection with Whois could be obtained.

It should be pointed out of course that this case is limited to the data collection issue.

The far, far trickier issue of when this data should be released to people who believe they have a legitimate purpose to see it — think: trademark guys — isn’t even up for discussion in the courts.

It will be, of course. Give it time.

All of ICANN’s legal filings, in the original German and unofficial translation, can be found here.