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As Kabul falls, Whois could present a danger to ordinary Afghans

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2021, Domain Policy

With Afghanistan falling to the Taliban this week, there’s potential danger to .af registrants — both in terms of losing domain services and of Whois being used for possibly deadly reprisals.

At time of writing, it’s been four days since the fall of Kabul. The uneasy truce between NATO and Taliban forces has failed to prevent scenes of chaos at the city’s main airport and the PR machine of so-called “Taliban 2.0” is in full bluster.

The new Taliban is, its spokespeople suggest, more tolerant of western liberal values and more supportive of human rights than its brutal, pre-9/11 incarnation.

Few believe this spin, and there have been multiple reports of 1990s-style oppression, including revenge killings and the suppression of women’s rights, across the country.

With all that in mind, a blog post about .af domain names may seem trivial, but it’s not my intention to trivialize.

I’m as appalled as any right-minded observer by the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and the neglect that led to it. But I believe .af could prove a learning moment in the ongoing conversation about Whois privacy.

The .af ccTLD has been managed since not long after the US-led invasion by the country’s Ministry of Communications and IT as the Afghanistan Network Information Center.

The registry had previously been managed for free from London by NetNames, with an admin contact in Kabul, according to the report of the 2003 IANA redelegation, which happened at a time when Afghanistan was still under a transitional government heavily overseen by the foreign governments behind the invasion.

Domain policy for .af was created in 2002, and it includes provisions for an open, freely available Whois database that is still in effect today.

Domains registered via overseas registrars appear to be benefiting from the impact of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which redacts personal information, but this obviously does not apply in Afghanistan.

This means the names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of .af registrants are available for querying via various Whois interfaces, including the registry’s own, which is managed by New Zealand-based back-end CoCCA.

Using a combination of web searches and Whois queries, it is possible to find personally identifiable information of registrants, including names and addresses, at local human rights groups, as well as local news media and technology providers supportive of human rights causes.

If the reports of Taliban fighters conducting house-to-house searches for enemies of the new state are accurate, the easy availability of this personal data could be a serious problem.

To a great extent, this could be a case study in what privacy advocates within the ICANN community are always warning about — public access to Whois data gives oppressive regimes a tool to target their oppression.

And as we have seen this week, oppressive regimes can appear almost literally overnight.

While it seems unlikely there’s anyone from the old Afghan ministry still in control of the registry, I think .af back-end provider CoCCA, as well as Whois aggregators such as DomainTools, should have a long think about whether it’s a good idea to continue to provide open access to .af Whois records at this time.

Fortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a great many .af domains under management. DomainTools reckons it’s under 7,000.

At the other end of the scale of seriousness, overseas .af registrants may also see issues with their names due to the Taliban takeover.

It seems incredible today, but in 2001 a Taliban decree restricted internet access to a single computer at a government ministry. Others in government could apply to use this computer by sending a fax to the relevant minister.

While it seems impossible that such a Draconian restriction could be reintroduced today, it still seems likely that the Taliban will crack down on internet usage to an extent, including introducing morality or residency restrictions to .af regs.

.af is currently open to registrants from anywhere in the world, with no complex restrictions and .com-competitive prices.

Many multinational corporations have registered .af names for their local presence.

The string “af” has in recent years become social media shorthand for “as fuck”, and a small number overseas registrants appear to be using it as a domain hack in that context — type “corrupt.af” into your browser and see what happens.

Others seem to be using .af, where short domains are still available, as shortcuts to their social media profiles.

I don’t believe ICANN will need to get directly involved in this situation. Its Whois query tool does not support .af, and IANA presumably won’t need to get involved in terms of redelegation any more than it would following a general election or a coup d’état.

Ethos clarifies .org price rises, promises to reveal number of censored domains

Public Interest Registry and would-be owner Ethos Capital have slightly revised the set of promises they hope to keep if ICANN approves the $1.13 billion acquisition.

Notably, in updating their proposed Public Interest Commitments (pdf), they’ve set out in plain dollar terms for the first time the maximum annual price PIR would charge for a .org domain over the coming seven years.

Applicable Maximum FeeTime Period
$9.93June 30, 2019 to June 29, 2020
$10.92June 30, 2020 to June 29, 2021
$12.02June 30, 2021 to June 29, 2022
$13.22June 30, 2022 to June 29, 2023
$14.54June 30, 2023 to June 29, 2024
$15.99June 30, 2024 to June 29, 2025
$17.59June 30, 2025 to June 29, 2026
$19.35June 30, 2026 to June 29, 2027

Previous versions of the PICs just included a formula and invited the reader to do the math(s).

The two companies are proposing to scrap price caps altogether after June 2027.

If ICANN rejects the deal, under its current contract PIR would be free to raise its prices willy-nilly from day one, though some believe it would be less likely to do so under its current ownership by the non-profit Internet Society.

The new PICs also include a nod to those who believe that PIR would become less sensitive to issues like free speech and censorship — perhaps because China may lean on Ethos’ shadowy billionaire backers. The document now states:

Registry Operator will produce and publish annually a report… This report will also include a transparency report setting forth the number of .ORG domain name registrations that have been suspended or terminated by Registry Operator during the preceding year under Registry Operator’s Anti-Abuse Policy or pursuant to court order.

A few other tweaks clarify the launch date and composition of its proposed Stewardship Council, a body made up of expert outsiders that would offer policy guidance and have a veto on issues such as changes to .org censorship and privacy policy.

The PICs now ban family members of people working for PIR from sitting on the council, and clarify that it would have to be up and running six months after the acquisition closes.

Because .org is not a gTLD applied for in 2012, the PICs do not appear to be open for public comment, but post-acquisition changes to the document would be.

ICANN currently plans to approve or deny the acquisition request by April 20, just 11 days from now.

After more racist shootings, take one guess which registrar 8chan just switched to

Kevin Murphy, August 5, 2019, Domain Registrars

Controversial web forum 8chan has moved its domain name to a new registrar after it was linked to at least one of the two mass shootings that occurred in the US over the weekend.

According to Whois records, it’s just jumped to racist-friendly Epik, having been registered at Tucows since 2003.

The switch appears to have happened in the last few hours. At time of writing, you’re going to get different results depending which Whois server you ping.

Some servers continue to report Tucows as the registrar of record, perhaps using cached data, but Epik’s result looks like this:

Whois output

8chan is an image/discussion board that describes itself as “the Darkest Reaches of the Internet”. It’s reportedly heavily used by racists, extremists and those with an interest in child pornography.

It was widely linked by the media to the shooting in the border town of El Paso, Texas on Saturday, which claimed the lives of 20 people and left 26 more injured.

The suspect in the case reportedly posted to 8chan a 2,300-word racist “manifesto”, in which he ranted against Latino immigration, just 20 minutes before launching the attack.

This morning, Cloudflare announced that it would no longer provide denial-of-service attack protection for the web site, saying:

The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.

Google removed the site from its index a few years ago, due to allegations about child abuse material.

At this point, it’s not clear whether Tucows also ejected 8chan, or whether its owners decided to jump ship, perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing.

Its new home, Epik, calls itself the “Swiss bank” of domain registrars, and has actively courted sites that enable far-right political views.

The registrar openly sought the business of Gab.com, the Twitter clone used largely by those who have been banned by Twitter, after GoDaddy suspended the site’s domain last November.

In March this year, Epik CEO Rob Monster came under fire for publicly doubting the veracity of the video of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 50 people.

8chan was also frequented by the perpetrator of that attack, among others.

Epik is described as “cornering the market on websites where hate speech is thriving”, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-racist group.

Monster has said that he does not support the views of extremists, but merely wants to provide a platform where registrants can exercise their rights to free speech.