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Beginning of the end for DomainTools? Court orders it to scrub Whois records

Kevin Murphy, September 13, 2018, Domain Registries

DomainTools has been temporarily banned from collecting and publishing the Whois records of all .nz domains.

A Washington court yesterday handed down a preliminary injunction against the company, after New Zealand’s Domain Name Commission sued it in July for scraping and republishing its Whois in violation of its terms of service.

Notably — especially if you’re involved in the ongoing Whois reform debate — Judge Robert Lasnik’s scathing order (pdf) rubbished DomainTools’ claims that its historical Whois service provides a public interest benefit that outweighs the privacy interests of .nz registrants.

The ruling by its own admission also potentially opens the floodgates for other registries and registrars to obtain injunctions against DomainTools for the own customers.

DomainTools has been “enjoined from accessing the .nz register while DomainTools’ limited license remains revoked and/or publishing any .nz register data DomainTools had stored or compiled in its own databases”.

DNC, the policy body that oversees .nz registry InternetNZ, had alleged that DomainTools had created a “secondary or shadow register” by bulk-downloading Whois records.

Since mid-2016, each .nz Whois record has contained a notice that such behavior is prohibited, and Lasnik agreed that DomainTools must surely have been aware of this.

Lasnik further agreed with DNC that DomainTools’ service is “sabotaging” its efforts to bring more privacy protection to .nz customers; since November last year it has offered individuals the ability to opt out of having their private data published, an offer 23,000 people have taken up.

That was enough for the judge to conclude that DNC’s case had met the “irreparable harm” test required for an injunction.

He was less impressed with DomainTools’ argument that implementing the injunction would take many months and cost it up to $3.5 million.

“Defendant can presumably filter the .nz data using relatively simple database tools,” he wrote, ordering DNC to post a “nominal” $1,000 bond to cover DT’s potential losses.

Lasnik also said the public interest would be better served by permitting registrant privacy than by serving the interests of DomainTools’ cybsecurity and law enforcement customers:

defendant argues that the products it creates from its meticulously collected register data are critical cybersecurity resources and that the public interest would be harmed if the reports provided to government, financial, and law enforcement entities were incomplete because the .nz data were excised. The .nz register is comparatively small, however (approximately 710,000 domains compared with over 135,000,000 .com domains), and the defendant and its customers can access the registration information directly through plaintiff’s website if it appears that a bad actor is using an .nz domain. On the other hand, the .nz registrants’ privacy and security interests are compromised as long as defendant is publishing non-current or historical .nz information out of its database. The Court finds that the public has an interest in the issuance of an injunction.

While arguably limited to historical Whois records, it’s a rare example of judicial commentary on the privacy rights of registrants and may well play into the ongoing debate about Whois in the post-GDPR world.

Even if it turns out not to have wider policy implications, the legal implications for DomainTools are potentially devastating.

While .nz has only about 710,000 domains under management, and is but one of over 1,500 TLDs, DomainTools, DNC and Judge Lasnik all seem to agree that the floodgates for further litigation may have now opened. Lasnik wrote:

defendant argues that a preliminary injunction in this case could start an avalanche of litigation as other registers attempt to protect the privacy of their registrants. If defendant built a business by downloading, storing, and using data from other registers in violation of the terms that governed its access to that data, defendant may be correct — other registers may be encouraged to pursue a breach of contract claim if plaintiff is successful here. It would be ironic, however, if a plaintiff who has shown a likelihood of success and irreparable injury were deprived of preliminary relief simply because defendant may have acted wrongfully toward others as well

DNC said in a statement: “Managers of other countries domain name systems across the world will want to pay attention to the judgment. This may raise confidence to fight their own cases should DomainTools be breaching their terms of use.”

The case has yet to go to court, but the fact that DNC won the injunction indicates that the judge believes it has a likelihood of winning.

Empty Whois a threat to the US elections?

Kevin Murphy, September 5, 2018, Domain Policy

Could a lack of Whois records thwart the fight against attempts to interfere in this year’s US elections?

That’s the threat raised by DomainTools CEO Tim Chen in a blog post, and others, this week.

Chen points to recent research by Facebook, based on an investigation by security company FireEye, that linked a large network of bogus news sites and social media accounts to the Iranian state media.

FireEye’s investigation used “historical Whois records”, presumably provided by DomainTools, to connect the dots between various domains and registrants associated with “Liberty Front Press”, a purportedly independent media organization and prolific social media user.

Facebook subsequently found that 652 accounts, pages and groups associated with the network, and removed them from its platform.

The accounts and sites in question were several years old but had been focusing primarily on politics in the UK and US since last year, Facebook said.

Based on screenshots shared by Facebook, the accounts had been used to spread political messages bashing US president Donald Trump and supporting the UK’s staunchly pro-Palestinian opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Google’s research, also inspired by FireEye’s findings and Whois data, linked the network to the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

The actions by Google and Facebook come as part of their crackdown on fake news ahead of the US mid-term Congressional elections, this November, which are are largely being seen as a referendum on the Trump presidency.

Because the domains in question predate the General Data Protection Regulation and ICANN’s response to it, DomainTools was able to capture Whois records before they went dark in May.

While the records often use bogus data, registrant email addresses common to multiple domains could be used to establish common ownership.

Historical Whois data for domains registered after May 2018 is not available, which will likely degrade the utility of DomainTools’ service over time.

Chen concluded his blog post, which appeared to be written partly in response to data suggesting that GDPR has not led to a growth in spam, with this:

Domain name Whois data isn’t going to solve the world’s cyberattack problems all on its own, but these investigations, centering on an issue of global importance that threatens our very democracy, likely get severely impaired without it. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, a few uniquely important investigations among the hundreds of thousands of cyberattacks going on all day every day all over the globe by people and organizations that can now hide behind the anonymity inherent in today’s internet. It’s reasonable that domain names used for certain commercial or functional purposes should require transparent registration information. Whois is not a crime.

DomainTools is one of the founders of the new Coalition for a Secure and Transparent Internet, a lobby group devoted to encouraging legislatures to keep Whois open.

Representatives of Facebook and Iran’s government are among the members of the Expedited Policy Development Process on Whois, an emergency ICANN working group that is currently trying to write a permanent GDPR-compliant Whois policy for ICANN.

Whois privacy did NOT increase spam volumes

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2018, Domain Tech

The advent of more-or-less blanket Whois privacy has not immediately led to the feared uptick in spam, according to researchers.

Data from Cisco’s Talos email data service, first highlighted by security company Recorded Future this week, shows spam levels have been basically flat to slightly down since ICANN’s GDPR-inspired new Whois policy came into effect May 25.

Public Talos data shows that on May 1 this year there were 433.9 billion average daily emails and 370.04 billion spams — 85.28% spam.

This was down to 361.83 billion emails and 308.05 billion spams by August 1, an 85.14% spam ratio, according to Recorded Future.

So, basically no change, and certainly not the kind of rocketing skyward of spam levels that some had feared.

Cisco compiles its data from customers of its various security products and services.

Looking at Talos’ 18-month view, it appears that spam volume has been on the decline since February, when the ratio of spam to ham was pretty much identical to post-GDPR levels.

It also shows a similar seasonal decline during the northern hemisphere’s summer 2017.

Talos graph

There had been a fear in some quarters that blanket Whois privacy would embolden spammers to register more domains and launch more ambitious spam campaigns, and that the lack of public data would thwart efforts to root out the spammers themselves.

While that may well transpire in future, the data seems to show that GDPR has not yet had a measurable impact on spam volume at all.

Could a new US law make GDPR irrelevant?

Kevin Murphy, August 29, 2018, Domain Policy

Opponents of Whois privacy are pushing for legislation that would basically reverse the impact of GDPR for the vast majority of domain names.

Privacy advocate Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project today scooped the news that draft legislation to this effect is being circulated by “special interests” in Washington DC.

He’s even published the draft (pdf).

Mueller does not call out the authors of the bill by name — though he does heavily hint that DomainTools may be involved — saying instead that they are “the same folks who are always trying to regulate and control the Internet. Copyright maximalists, big pharma, and the like.”

I’d hazard a guess these guys may be involved.

The bill is currently called the Transparent, Open and Secure Internet Act of 2018, or TOSI for short. In my ongoing quest to coin a phrase and have it stick, I’m tempted to refer to its supporters as “tossers”.

TOSI would force registries and registrars to publish Whois records in full, as they were before May this year when ICANN’s “Temp Spec” Whois policy — a GDPR Band-aid — came into effect.

It would capture all domain companies based in US jurisdiction, as well as non-US companies that sell domains to US citizens or sell domains that are used to market goods or services to US citizens.

Essentially every company in the industry, in other words.

Even if only US-based companies fell under TOSI, that still includes Verisign and GoDaddy and therefore the majority of all extant domains.

The bill would also ban privacy services for registrants who collect data on their visitors or monetize the domains in any way (not just transactionally with a storefront — serving up an ad would count too).

Privacy services would have to terminate such services when informed that a registrant is monetizing their domains.

But the bill doesn’t stop there.

Failing to publish Whois records in full would be an “unfair or deceptive act or practice” and the Federal Trade Commission would be allowed to pursue damages against registries and registrars that break the law.

In short, it’s a wish-list for those who oppose the new regime of privacy brought in by ICANN’s response to the General Data Protection Regulation.

While it’s well-documented that the US executive branch, in the form of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is no fan of GDPR, whether there’s any interest in the US Congress to adopt such legislation is another matter.

Is this an IP lawyer’s pipe-dream, or the start of a trans-Atlantic war over privacy? Stay tuned!

ICANN closes GoDaddy Whois probe

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2018, Domain Registrars

ICANN has closed its investigation into GoDaddy’s Whois practices with no action taken.

Senior VP of compliance Jamie Hedlund yesterday wrote to David Redl, head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to provide an update on the probe, news of which first emerged in April.

The NTIA and members of the intellectual property community had complained that GoDaddy was throttling Whois access over port 43 and that it was masking certain fields in the output.

That was when GoDaddy and the rest of the ICANN-regulated industry was working under the old rules, before the new temporary Whois policy had been introduced to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

Hedlund told Redl in a letter (pdf):

Based on our review and testing (including outside of ICANN’s network), GoDaddy is not currently masking WHOIS data or otherwise limiting access to its WHOIS services. Consequently, the complaints related to GoDaddy’s masking of certain WHOIS fields, rate limiting, and whitelisting of IP addresses have been addressed and closed.

GoDaddy had said earlier this year that it was throttling access over port 43 in an attempt to reduce the availability of Whois data to the spammers that have been increasingly plaguing its customers with offers of web site development and search engine optimization services.