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ICANN chief tells industry to lawyer up as privacy law looms

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2017, Domain Services

The domain name industry should not rely on ICANN to protect it from incoming EU privacy law.

That’s the strong message that came out of ICANN 60 in Abu Dhabi last week, with the organization’s CEO repeatedly advising companies to seek their own legal advice on compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation.

The organization also said that it will “defer taking action” against any registrar or registry that does not live up its contractual Whois commitments, within certain limits.

“GDPR is a law. I didn’t come up with it, it didn’t come from ICANN policy, it’s the law,” Marby said during ICANN 60 in Abu Dhabi last week.

“This is the first time we’ve seen any legislation that has a direct impact on our ability to make policies,” he said.

GDPR is the EU law governing how companies treat the private information of individuals. While in force now, from May next year companies in any industry found in breach of GDPR could face millions of euros in fines.

For the domain industry, it is expected to force potentially big changes on the current Whois system. The days of all Whois contact information published freely for all to see may well be numbered.

But nobody — not even ICANN — yet knows precisely how registries and registrars are going to be able to comply with the law whilst still publishing Whois data as required by their ICANN contracts.

The latest official line from ICANN is:

At this point, we know that the GDPR will have an impact on open, publicly available WHOIS. We have no indication that abandoning existing WHOIS requirements is necessary to comply with the GDPR, but we don’t know the extent to which personal domain registration data of residents of the European Union should continue to be publicly available.

Marby told ICANNers last week that it might not be definitively known how the law applies until some EU case law has been established in the highest European courts, which could take years.

A GNSO working group and ICANN org have both commissioned legal studies by European law experts. The ICANN one, by Swedish law firm Hamilton, is rather more comprehensive and can be read here (pdf).

Even after this report, Marby said ICANN is still in “discovery” mode.

Marby encouraged the industry to not only submit their questions to ICANN, to be referred on to Hamilton for follow-up studies, but also to share whatever legal advice they have been given and are able to share.

He and others pointed out that Whois is not the only point of friction with GDPR — it’s a privacy law, not a Whois law — so registries and registrars should be studying all of their personal data collection processes for potential conflicts.

Because there is very likely going to be a clash between GDPR compliance and ICANN contract compliance, ICANN has suspended all enforcement actions against Whois violations, within certain parameters.

It said last week that: “ICANN Contractual Compliance will defer taking action against any registry or registrar for noncompliance with contractual obligations related to the handling of registration data.”

This is not ICANN saying that registries and registrars can abandon Whois altogether, the statement stresses, but they might be able to adjust their data-handling models.

Domain firms will have to show “a reasonable accommodation of existing contractual obligations and the GDPR” and will have to submit their models to ICANN for review by Hamilton.

ICANN also stressed that registries may have to undergo a Registry Services Evaluation Process review before they can deploy their new model.

The organization has already told two Dutch new gTLD registries that they must submit to an RSEP, after .amsterdam and .frl abruptly stopped publishing Whois data for private registrants recently.

General counsel John Jeffrey wrote to the registries’ lawyer (pdf) to state that an RSEP is required regardless of whether the “new registry service” was introduced to comply with local law.

“One of the underlying purposes of this policy is to ensure that a new registry service does not create and security, stability or competition concerns,” he wrote.

Jeffrey said that while Whois privacy was offered at the registry level, registrars were still publishing full contact details for the same registrants.

ICANN said last week that it will publish more detailed guidance advising registries and registrars how to avoid breach notices will be published “shortly”.