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First chance to have your say on the future of Whois

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2018, Domain Policy

RIP: the Whois Admin.

Standard Whois output is set to get slimmed down further under newly published policy proposals.

The community working group looking at post-GDPR Whois has decided that the Admin Contact is no longer necessary, so it’s likely to get scrapped next year.

This is among several recommendations of the Expedited Policy Development Process working group on Whois, which published its initial report for public comment late Wednesday.

As expected, the report stops short of addressing the key question of how third-parties such as intellectual property interests, domain investors, security researchers and the media could get streamlined access to private Whois data.

Indeed, despite over 5,000 person-hours of teleconferences and face-to-face meetings and about 1,000 mailing list messages since work began in early August, the EPDP’s 50 members have yet to reach consensus on many areas of debate.

What they have reached is “tentative agreement” on 22 recommendations on how to bring current ICANN Whois policy into line with EU privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation.

The work is designed to replace the current Temporary Specification, a Band-Aid imposed by the ICANN board of directors, which is due to expire next May.

The EPDP initial report proposes a few significant changes to what data is collected and publicly displayed by the Whois system.

The most notable change is the complete elimination of the Admin Contact fields.

Currently, Whois contains contact information for the registrant, admin contact and technical contact. It’s often the same data replicated across all three records, and under the Temp Spec the large majority of the data is redacted.

Under the EPDP’s proposal, the Admin Contact is superfluous and should be abandoned altogether. Not only would it not be displayed, but registrars would not even collect the data.

The Tech Contact is also getting a haircut. Registrars would now only be able to collect name, phone and email address, and it would be optional for the registrant whether to provide this data at all. In any event, all three fields would be redacted from public Whois output.

For the registrant, all contact information except state/province and country would be redacted.

There’s no agreement yet on whether the optional “organization” field would be redacted, but the group has agreed that registrars should provide better guidance to registrants about whether they need to provide that data.

While data on legal persons such as companies is not protected by GDPR, some fear that natural person registrants may just naively type their own name into that box when registering a name, inadvertently revealing their identities to the public.

Those providing Whois output would be obliged, as they are under the Temp Spec, to publish an anonymized email address or web-based contact form to allow users to contact registrants without personal information being disclosed.

That German lawsuit

The recommendation to slash what data is collected could have an impact on ICANN’s lawsuit against Tucows’ German subsidiary, EPAG.

ICANN is suing EPAG after the registrar decided that collecting admin and tech contact info was not compliant with GPDR. It’s been looking, unsuccessfully, for a ruling forcing the company to carry on collecting this data.

Tucows is of the view that if the admin and tech contacts are third parties to the registration agreement, it has no right to collect data about them under the GDPR.

If ICANN’s own community policy development process is siding with Tucows, this could guide ICANN’s future legal strategy, but not, it appears, until it becomes firm consensus policy.

I asked ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey about whether the EPDP’s work could affect the lawsuit during an interview October 5, shortly after it became clear that the admin/tech contact days might be numbered.

“Maybe,” he said. “If it becomes part of the policy we’ll have to assess that. Until there’s a new policy though, what we’re working with is the Temp Spec. The Temp Spec we believe is enforceable, we believe have the legal support for that, and we’ll continue down that path.”

(It might be worth noting that Thomas Rickert, whose law firm represents EPAG in this case, is on the EPDP working group in his capacity of head of domains for German trade group eco. He is, of course, just one of the 31 EPDP members developing these recommendations at any given time.)

IP wheel-spinning

The main reason it’s taken the EPDP so long to reach the initial report stage — the report was originally due during the ICANN 63 Barcelona meeting a month ago — has been the incessant bickering between those advocating for, and opposing, the rights of intellectual property interests to access private Whois data.

EPDP members from the IP Constituency and Business Constituency have been attempting to future-proof the work by getting as many references to IP issues inserted into the recommendations as they can, before the group has turned its attention to addressing them specifically.

But they’ve been opposed every step of the way by the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which is concerned the IP lobby is trying to policy its way around GDPR as it relates to Whois.

Many hours have been consumed by these often-heated debates.

My feeling is that the NCSG has been generally winning, but probably mainly because the working group’s charter forbade discussion about access until other issues had been addressed.

As it stands today, the initial report contains this language in Recommendation #2:

Per the EPDP Team Charter, the EPDP Team is committed to considering a system for Standardized Access to non-public Registration Data once the gating questions in the charter have been answered. This will include addressing questions such as:

• What are the legitimate purposes for third parties to access registration data?

• What are the eligibility criteria for access to non-public Registration data?

• Do those parties/groups consist of different types of third-party requestors?

• What data elements should each user/party have access to?

In this context, amongst others, disclosure in the course of intellectual property infringement and DNS abuse cases will be considered

This is basically a placeholder to assure the IP crowd that their wishes are still on the table for future debate — which I don’t think was ever in any doubt — but even this basic recommendation took hours to agree to.

The EPDP’s final report is due February 1, so it has just 70 days to discuss this hypothetical “Standardized Access” model. That’s assuming it started talks today, which it hasn’t.

It’s just nine weeks if we assume not a lot is going to happen over the Christmas/New Year week (most of the working group come from countries that celebrate these holidays).

For context, it’s taken the working group about 115 days just to get to the position it is in today.

Even if Standardized Access was the only issue being discussed — and it’s not, the group is also simultaneously going to be considering the public comment on its initial report, for starters — this is an absurdly aggressive deadline.

I feel fairly confident in predicting that, come February 1, there will be no agreement on a Standardized Access framework, at least not one that would be close to implementable.

Have your say

All 22 recommendations, along with a long list of questions, have now been put out for public comment.

The working group is keen to point out that all comments should provide rationales, and consider whether what they’re asking for would be GDPR-compliant, so comments along the lines of “Waaah! Whois should be open!” will likely be rapidly filed to the recycle bin.

It’s a big ask, considering that most people have just a slim grasp of what GDPR compliance actually means.

Complicating matters, ICANN is testing out a new way to process public comments this time around.

Instead of sending comments in by email, which has been the norm for two decades, a nine-page Google form has been created. This is intended to make it easier to link comments to specific recommendations. There’s also a Word version of the form that can be emailed.

Given the time constraints, it seems like an odd moment to be testing out new processes, but perhaps it will streamline things as hoped. We’ll see.

No Verfügungsanspruch for ICANN in GDPR lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has lost its latest attempt to use the German courts to force Tucows to continue to collect Whois records the registrar thinks are unnecessary.

In an August 1 ruling, a translation of which (pdf) has been published by ICANN, the court ruled that no preliminary injunction (or “Verfügungsanspruch”) was necessary, because ICANN has not shown it would suffer irreparable harm without one.

ICANN wants Tucows’ German subsidiary EPAG to carry on collecting the Admin-C and Tech-C fields of Whois, even though the registrar thinks that would make it fall foul of Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation.

The organization has already had two adverse decisions at a lower court, and the appeals court‘s latest ruling does not change anything. The judge ruled:

The Applicant [ICANN] has already not demonstrated that a preliminary injunction is required in order to avoid substantial disadvantages. To the extent the Applicant submitted in its application that interim relief was necessary in order to avert irreparable harm by arguing that the data to be collected would otherwise be irretrievably lost, this is not convincing. The Defendant [EPAG] could at a later point collect this data from the respective domain holder by a simple inquiry, provided that an obligation in this regard should be established.

The court also declined to refer the case to the European Court of Justice, as ICANN had wanted, because nothing in the ruling required GDPR to be interpreted.

This a a blow, because the whole point of the lawsuit is for ICANN and registrars to get some clarity on what the hell GDPR actually requires when it comes to Whois.

ICANN said it is “considering its next steps, including possible additional filings before the German courts”, noting that the “main proceedings” of the case are still ahead of it.

ICANN’s GDPR lawsuit bounced up to appeals court

Kevin Murphy, July 24, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN’s lawsuit against Tucows’ German subsidiary EPAG has been bounced up to a higher court in Cologne.

The suit seeks to force Tucows to continue to collect the Admin-C and Tech-C fields of the Whois spec, something which is required by the Registrar Accreditation Agreement but which Tucows argues would force it to breach the General Data Protection Regulation.

The court of first instance denied ICANN’s application for an injunction.

ICANN then appealed, suggesting that the case should be referred to the European Court of Justice for a definitive answer.

Instead, the Bonn “Regional Court” has referred the case to the “Higher Regional Court” in Cologne. ICANN said the ECJ referral is still a possibility, however.

The lower court did not change its original ruling, but nor did it consider ICANN’s new arguments, which will transfer to the higher court’s attention, according to ICANN.

If you want a migraine to match mine, you can read an ICANN-provided English translation of the latest ruling here (pdf).

Euro-Whois advice still as clear as mud

Kevin Murphy, July 6, 2018, Domain Policy

European privacy chiefs have again weighed in to the ongoing debate about GDPR and Whois, offering another thin batch of vague advice to ICANN.

The European Data Protection Board, in its latest missive (pdf), fails to provide much of the granular “clarity” ICANN has been looking for, in my view.

It does offer a few pieces of specific guidance, but it seems to me that the general gist of the letter from EDPB chair Andrea Jelinek to ICANN CEO Goran Marby is basically: “You’re on your own buddy.”

If the question ICANN asked was “How can we comply with GDPR?” the answer, again, appears to be generally: “By complying with GDPR.”

To make matters worse, Jelinek signs off with a note implying that the EDPB now thinks that it has given ICANN all the advice it needs to run off and create a GDPR-compliant accreditation system for legitimate access to private Whois data.

The EDPB is the body that replaced the Article 29 Working Party after GDPR came into effect in May. It’s made up of the data protection authorities of all the EU member states.

On the accreditation discussion — which aims to give the likes of trademark owners and security researchers access to Whois data — the clearest piece of advice in the letter is arguably:

the personal data processed in the context of WHOIS can be made available to third parties who have a legitimate interest in having access to the data, provided that appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure that the disclosure is proportionate and limited to that which is necessary and the other requirements of GDPR are met, including the provision of clear information to data subjects.

That’s a fairly straightforward statement that ICANN is fine to go ahead with the creation of an accreditation model for third parties, just as long as it’s quite tightly regulated.

But like so much of its advice, it contains an unhelpful nested reference to GDPR compliance.

The letter goes on to say that logging Whois queries should be part of these controls, but that care should be taken not to tip off registrants being investigated by law enforcement.

But it makes no effort to answer Marby’s questions (pdf) about who these legit third-parties might be and how ICANN might go about identifying them, which is probably the most important outstanding issue right now.

Jelinek also addresses ICANN’s lawsuit against Tucows’ German subsidiary EPAG, and I have to disagree with interpretations of its position published elsewhere.

The Register’s Kieren McCarthy, my Chuckle Brother from another Chuckle Mother, reckons the EDPB has torpedoed the lawsuit by “stating clearly that it cannot force people to provide additional ‘admin’ and ‘technical’ contacts for a given domain name”.

Under my reading, what it actually states is that registrants should be able to either use their own contact data, or anonymized contact information identifying a third party, in these records.

The EDPB clearly anticipates that admin and technical contacts can continue to exist, as long as they contain non-personal contact information such as “admin@example.com”, rather than “kevin@example.com”.

That’s considerably more in line with ICANN’s position than that of Tucows, which wants to stop collecting that data altogether.

One area where EDPB does in fact shoot down ICANN’s new Whois policy is when it comes to data retention.

The current ICANN contracts make registrars retain data for two years, but the EDPB notes that ICANN does not explain why or where that number comes from (I hear it was “pulled out of somebody’s ass”).

The EDPB says that ICANN needs to “re-evaluate the proposed data retention period of two years and to explicitly justify and document why it is necessary”.

Finally, the EDPB weighs in on the issue of Whois records for “legal persons” (as opposed to “natural persons”). It turns out their Whois records are not immune to GDPR either.

If a company lists John Smith and john.smith@example.com in its Whois records, that’s personal data on Mr Smith and therefore falls under GDPR, the letter says.

That should provide a strong incentive for registries and registrars to stop publishing potentially personal fields, if they’re still doing so.

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.

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