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Is the new Whois policy group already doomed to fail?

Kevin Murphy, July 24, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization has set itself extremely aggressive, some might say impossible, targets for its emergency Whois policy work.

The GNSO Council on Thursday approved the charter for a new working group that will attempt to come up with a consensus policy for how to amend the Whois system in light of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

But the vote was not unanimous — three of the six Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group councilors abstained largely because they think intellectual property interests have managed to capture the discussion before it has begun.

The three abstentions were independent consultant Ayden Ferdeline, cybersecurity policy researcher Tatiana Tropina, and privacy consultant Stephanie Perrin.

Tropina said during the Thursday meeting: “I cannot vote ‘yes’ for a document that in my opinion has parts that are not properly worded and, instead of setting the scope of the EPDP [Expedited Policy Development Process] work, set up multiple possibilities to get the work sidetracked.”

She and Ferdeline pointed specifically to section J of the approved charter (pdf), which addresses “reasonable access” to non-public Whois data.

This is the part of the policy work that will decide whether, and to what extent, entities such as trademark owners and cybersecurity researchers will be able to peek behind the curtain of post-GDPR personal data redactions and see who actually owns domain names.

There are several “gating” questions that the working group must answer before it gets to J, however, such as: what data should be collected by registrars, how data transfer to registries should be handled, and are the reasons for this data to be collected all valid?

But when it comes to section J, the abstaining NCSG councilors reckon that the Intellectual Property Community has managed to sneak in the notion that its members should get access to private data as a fait accompli. Section J reads in part:

What framework(s) for disclosure could be used to address (i) issues involving abuse of domain name registrations, including but not limited to consumer protection, investigation of cybercrime, DNS abuse and intellectual property protection, (ii) addressing appropriate law enforcement needs, and (iii) provide access to registration data based on legitimate interests not outweighed by the fundamental rights of relevant data subjects?

Ferdeline said in his abstention:

I believe that Section J includes, first and foremost, questions that unnecessarily expand the scope of this EPDP and put perceived answers — rather than genuine, open ended questions — into this important document. Overall I think this section of the charter’s scope is unnecessary and will not allow the EPDP team to complete their work in a timely manner.

Tropina said J “poses the questions that, first of all, imply by default that issues related to intellectual property protection and consumer protection require the disclosure of personal data”, adding that she was bewildered that IP interests had been lumped in with security concerns:

This wording fails me: as I am criminal lawyer working in the field of frameworks for cybercrime investigation, I do not see why cybercrime investigations are separated from law enforcement needs and go to the same basket with intellectual property protection as they are on a completely different level of legitimate demands

In short, the newly approved EPDP charter has been framed in such a way as to make discussions extremely fractious from the outset, pitting privacy interests against those of the trademark lobby on some of the most divisive wedge issues.

This is problematic given that the working group has an extremely aggressive schedule — its members have not yet even been named and yet it expects to produce its Initial Report shortly after ICANN 63, which ends October 25 this year.

It’s an absurdly short space of time to resolve questions that have dogged ICANN for almost two decades.

Will this pressure to come to agreement against the clock work in favor of the trademark community, or will it doom the policy-making process to deadlock?

Attempting to steer the WG through this minefield will be Kurt Pritz, who was confirmed by the Council as its neutral chair on Thursday, as DI first reported a week ago.

The make-up of the group has also proved contentious.

While it is a GNSO process that would lead to a Consensus Policy binding on all gTLD registries and registrars, the decision has been made to bring in voices from other areas of the community, such as the Country Code Names Supporting Organization, which will not be directly affected by the resulting policy.

There will be 29 members in total, not counting the non-voting chair.

The GNSO gets 18 of these seats at the table, comprising: three registries, three registrars, two IPC members, two ISPs, two Business Constituency members, six NCSG members (which, I imagine would be split between the privacy-focused NCUC and more IP-friendly NPOC).

But also joining the group on an equal footing will be two members of the Root Server System Advisory Committee (I’ve no idea why), two from the Security and Stability Advisory Committee, two from the ccNSO, two from the At-Large Advisory Committee and three from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The actual individuals filling these seats will be named by their respective constituencies in the next few days, ahead of the first WG meeting July 30.

It has been said that these people could expect to devote north of 30 hours a week (unpaid of course, though any necessary travel will be comp’d) to the discussions.

Pritz to be named chair of Whois group

Kevin Murphy, July 16, 2018, Domain Policy

Former ICANN senior vice president Kurt Pritz is expected to be named chair of the group tasked with reforming Whois in the post-GDPR world.

Sources familiar with the situation tell DI that Pritz was selected from three candidates who put themselves forward for the grueling policy-making task.

I’m told that choice was made by GNSO Council’s leadership and selection committee (minus Pritz’s wife, Donna Austin, who recused herself) and will have to be confirmed by the full Council when it meets this Thursday.

Pritz would chair the GNSO’s first-ever Expedited Policy Development Process working group, which is expected to provide an ICANN community response to ICANN org’s recent, top-down Temporary Specification for Whois.

The Temp Spec, written by ICANN in response to the GDPR privacy law, is the thing that is contractually forcing all gTLD registries and registrars to redact personal information from their public Whois records.

Because it’s temporary, it will expire May 24 next year, one year after it came into effect.

The EPDP will put the force of community consensus behind the policy that replaces it, but it’s unlikely to differ a great deal from the Temp Spec, so it would be unwise to get your hopes up that Whois will return to pre-GDPR levels of accessibility — ICANN policy cannot overrule the law.

The EPDP chair’s job is expected to be extremely taxing. During the recent ICANN meeting in Panama, it was said that regular, non-chair working group members could be expected to commit as much as 30 hours a week to the project.

ICANN expects that the EPDP’s core work should be complete before ICANN 63, which begins October 20, with its final report due next February.

Given that the ICANN community has failed to come to much consensus on anything Whois related for two decades, these are extremely aggressive targets.

To maintain focus, the EPDP group is going to be kept relatively small, but there’s still bickering about the make-up of the group, with non-commercial interests upset the commercial side of house is getting more representation.

The chair’s role was therefore potentially controversial — neutrality was seen as a key quality when ICANN advertised the gig a couple of weeks ago.

Pritz currently works for the .art new gTLD registry operator UK Creative Ideas, so technically he would be in the Registries Stakeholder Group.

But he’s also one of the key architects of the new gTLD program, ICANN’s point man on the application process before his resignation in late 2012, so he has extensive experience herding cats in a relatively neutral way.

Since then, he’s had stints as a consultant and as executive director of the Domain Name Association.

Could crypto solve the Whois crisis?

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

Could there be a cryptographic solution to some of the problems caused by GDPR’s impact on public Whois databases? Security experts think so.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group has proposed that hashing personal information and publishing it could help security researchers carry on using Whois to finger abusive domain names.

In a letter to ICANN, APWG recently said that such a system would allow registries and registrars to keep their customers’ data private, but would still enable researchers to identify names registered in bulk by spammers and the like.

“Redacting all registration records which were formerly publicly available has unintended and undesirable consequences to the very citizens and residents that electronic privacy legislation intends to protect,” the letter (pdf) says.

Under the proposed system, each registry or registrar would generate a private key for itself. For each Whois field containing private data, the data would be added to the key and hashed using a standard algorithm such as SHA-512.

For items such as physical addresses, all the address-related fields would be concatenated, with the key, before hashing the combined value.

The resulting hash — a long string of gibberish characters — would then be published in the public Whois instead of the [REDACTED] notice mandated by current ICANN policy.

Security researchers would then be able to identify domains belonging to the same purported registrant by searching for domains containing the same hash values.

It’s not a perfect solution. Because each registry or registrar would have their own key, the same registrant would have different hash values in different TLDs, so it would not be possible to search across TLDs.

But that may not be a huge problem, given that bad guys tend to bulk-register names in TLDs that have special offers on.

The hashing system may also be beneficial to interest groups such as trademark owners and law enforcement, which also look for registration patterns when tracking down abuse registrants.

The proposal would create implementation headaches for registries and registrars — which would actually have to build the crypto into their systems — and compliance challenges for ICANN.

The paper notes that ICANN would have to monitor its contracted parties — not all of which may necessarily be unfriendly to spammers — to make sure they’re hashing the data correctly.

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.

How ICANN thinks YOU could get full Whois access

Kevin Murphy, June 20, 2018, Domain Policy

With blanket public Whois access now firmly a thing of the past due to GDPR, ICANN has set the ball rolling on an accreditation system that would reopen the data doors to certain select parties.

The org yesterday published a high-level framework document for a “Unified Access Model” that could give Whois access to approved users such as police, lawyers, and even common registrants.

It contains many elements that are sure to be controversial, such as paying fees for Whois access, the right of governments to decide who gets approved, and ICANN’s right to see every single Whois query carried out under the program.

It’s basically ICANN’s attempt to frame the conversation about Whois access, outlining what it expects from community members such as registries and registrars, governments and others.

It outlines a future in which multiple “Authenticating Bodies” would hand out credentials (either directly or via referral to a central authority) to parties they deem eligible for full Whois access.

These Authenticating Bodies could include entities such as WIPO or the Trademark Clearinghouse for trademark lawyers and Interpol or Europol for law enforcement agencies.

Once suitably credentialed, Whois users would either get unexpurgated Whois access or access to only fields appropriate to their stated purpose. That’s one of many questions still open for discussion.

There could be fees levied at various stages of the process, but ICANN says there should be a study of the financial implications of the model before a decision is made.

Whois users would have to agree to a code of conduct specific to their role (cop, lawyer, registrant, etc) that would limit how they could use the data they acquire.

Additionally, registrars and registries would have to log every single Whois query and hand those logs over to ICANN for compliance and audit purposes. ICANN said:

based on initial discussions with members of the Article 29 Working Party, ICANN proposes that registry operators and registrars would be required to maintain audit logs of domain name queries for non-public WHOIS data, unless logging a particular entry is contrary to a relevant court order. The logs would be available to ICANN org for audit/compliance purposes, relevant data protection authorities, the registrant, or pursuant to a court order.

On the higher-level question of who should be given the keys to the new gates Whois — it’s calling them “Eligible User Groups” — ICANN wants to outsource the difficult decisions to either governments or, as a backstop, the ICANN community.

The proposal says: “Eligible User Groups might include intellectual property rights holders, law enforcement authorities, operational security researchers, and individual registrants.”

It wants the European Economic Area members of its Governmental Advisory Committee, and then the GAC as a whole, to “identify or facilitate identification of broad categories” of eligible groups.

ICANN’s next public meeting, ICANN 62, kicks off in Panama at the weekend, so the GAC’s next formal communique, which could address this issue, is about a week away.

ICANN also wants the GAC to help it identify potential Authenticating Bodies that would hand out credentials.

But the GAC, in its most recent communique, has already declined such a role, saying in March that it “does not envision an operational role in designing and implementing the proposed accreditation programs”.

If it sticks with that position, ICANN says it will turn to the community to have this difficult conversation.

It notes specifically the informal working group that is currently developing a “community” Accreditation & Access Model For Non-Public WHOIS Data.

This group is fairly controversial as it is perceived by some, fairly I think, as being dominated by intellectual property interests.

The group’s draft model is already in version 1.6 (pdf), and at 47 pages is much more detailed than ICANN’s proposal, but its low-traffic mailing list has almost no contracted parties on board and the IP guys are very decidedly holding the pen.

There’s also a separate draft, the Palage Differentiated Registrant Data Access Model (or “Philly Special”) (Word doc), written by consultant Michael Palage, which has received even less public discussion.

ICANN’s proposal alludes to these drafts, but it does not formally endorse either as some had feared. It does, however, provide a table (pdf) comparing its own model to the other two.

What do not get a mention are the access models already being implemented by individual registrars.

Notably, Tucows is ready to launch TieredAccess.com, a portal for would-be Whois users to obtain credentials to view Tucows-managed Whois records.

This system grants varying levels of access to “law enforcement, commercial litigation interests, and security researchers”, with law enforcement given the highest level of access, Tucows explained in a blog post yesterday.

That policy is based on the GDPR principle of “data minimization”, which is the key reason it’s currently embroiled in an ICANN lawsuit (unrelated to accreditation) in Germany.

Anyway, now that ICANN has published its own starting point proposal, it is now expected that the community will start to discuss the draft in a more formal ICANN setting. There are several sessions devoted to GDPR and Whois in Panama.

ICANN also expects to take the proposal to the European Data Protection Board, the EU committee of data protection authorities that replaced the Article 29 Working Party when GDPR kicked in last month.

However, in order for any of this to become binding on registries and registrars it will have to be baked into their contracts, which will mean it going through the regular ICANN policy development process, and it’s still not clear how much enthusiasm there is for that step happening soon.