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ICANN just gave a company a new gTLD for free

Kevin Murphy, September 10, 2015, Domain Policy

The Tor Project Inc, a Massachusetts non-profit software maker, just got a new gTLD reserved for its own exclusive use, by ICANN, for free.

Tor did this without engaging in the ICANN new gTLD program, paying any ICANN application fees, or following any of the rules in the ICANN Applicant Guidebook.

It basically circumvented the entire ICANN process, and it only took six months from asking.

Neat trick, right?

Tor develops the software that creates the Tor “anonymity network” used by people who wish to obfuscate their internet usage (legal or otherwise) by routing their traffic via a series of proxies or relays.

The free software, which plugs into browsers, uses meaningless, hashed “.onion” domains because the routing method is known as “onion routing”.

IANA, an ICANN department, last night placed .onion on its list of Special Use Domains, meaning it cannot be delegated to the DNS.

If anyone were to apply for it today — assuming that were possible — they’d be out of luck. It seems .onion now has the same protected status as .example and .localhost.

The reservation was made at the instruction of the Internet Engineering Task Force, which published a new Internet Draft reserving the .onion gTLD for use with Tor.

An Internet Draft is a “work in progress” standards track document with a six-month shelf life, not yet a finalized Request For Comments (RFC).

This one was written by engineers from Tor and Facebook.

The Internet Engineering Steering Group, the IETF’s coordinating body, approved the draft last week.

Of the 13 IESG members who voted on the document, the first draft of which was published six months ago, five voted “Yes”, seven offered “No Objection” and only one abstained.

The abstainer, Barry Leiba, standards guru at Huawei Technologies, wrote:

I believe the IETF shouldn’t be involved with registering special-use TLDs for things that were used outside of IETF protocols, and should not be wading into territory that belongs to ICANN. I know there are a bunch of other such TLDs that people/organizations would have us snag for them, and I very much want to avoid doing a batch of others.

That said, I well understand the deployed code involved and the importance of keeping things working in this case, and I don’t want to stand in the way. So I’m standing aside with an “Abstain” ballot.

The logic behind the reservation is that if ICANN were to delegate .onion to somebody else (for example, The Onion) there would be a risk that the improved privacy offered by Tor would be compromised.

Voting in favor of the draft, Cisco engineer Alissa Cooper wrote:

Registering this name seems warranted in light of the potential security impact. We need to make our processes work for the Internet, not vice versa.

Another affirmative vote came from Oracle engineer Ben Campbell. He wrote:

This one took some soul searching. But I think the arguments have been made, and that on the whole this registration does more good than harm.

A number of IESG members suggested that the IETF should revisit and possibly amend the RFC in which it originally granted itself the power to reserve gTLDs.

That’s RFC6761, entitled “Special-Use Domain Names”, which dates to February 2013.

RFC6761 lays out a seven-point test that a string must pass before it can be considered “special use” and thereby reserved.

The tests cover whether humans, applications and various types of DNS software are expected to handle the string differently to a regular TLD.

The RFC also notes:

The IETF has responsibility for specifying how the DNS protocol works, and ICANN is responsible for allocating the names made possible by that DNS protocol… Reservation of a Special-Use Domain Name is not a mechanism for circumventing normal domain name registration processes.

I think reasonable people could disagree on whether that’s what has just happened in the case of .onion.

Indeed, there was some discussion on the IETF’s “dnsop” working group mailing list about whether Tor was “squatting” .onion, and whether it was appropriate to reserve its chosen TLD string.

I wonder what kind of precedent this could set.

The Tor Project Inc is a Massachusetts non-profit company. It’s primarily funded by US government grants, according to its 2013 financial statements, the most recent available. It doesn’t sell .onion domains — they’re auto-generated by the software.

Part of the argument in favor of allowing the new Internet Draft is that .onion substantially pre-dates the creation of RFC6761 — it’s not an attempt to game the RFC.

Why wouldn’t that same argument apply to, for example, alternate root operator Name.Space, which has been offering hundreds of pseudo-gTLDs since 1996?

Name.Space could argue that its strings pre-date .onion by eight years, and that the security of its registrants and users could be compromised if ICANN were to delegate them to the DNS.

What about NameCoin, another alternate root provider? It also pre-dates RFC6761 and, like Tor, uses browser software to work around the DNS.

I don’t know enough about the IETF’s processes, to be honest, to say whether it would be forced to apply its .onion logic to these other namespaces. But it’s an interesting question.

And as somebody who has spent the last five years immersed in the minutiae of the rules ICANN has created to govern the allocation of words, it’s jarring to see those rules circumnavigated so completely.

Anger as ICANN’s member flops before board

Kevin Murphy, September 4, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors came to blows with its key accountability working group this week, over proposals that would give ICANN the community the right to sue ICANN the organization.

An extraordinary three-hour teleconference between the board and the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing Accountability (CCWG) Wednesday night came across like some kind of weird, Orwellian, passive-aggressive piece of emotional domestic abuse.

The CCWG, a group of volunteers coming from all parts of the ICANN community, has created a set of proposals for improving ICANN’s accountability to the community as part of its transition process away from US government oversight.

The idea is to create sufficient accountability mechanisms so that if in future the entire ICANN board grows goatee beards and turns Eeevil, the community will still be able to hold them to their bylaws commitments.

The CCWG, following the advice of an independent law firm, decided that the best way to do this was to turn ICANN into a membership organization with a “Sole Member”.

This member would be a legal entity run by community members that would have the right under California law to sue ICANN if it ever failed to live up to its bylaws.

For example, if ICANN refused to implement the decisions of an Independent Review Panel, the member could seek to have the ruling enforced by a court.

This is just one of many proposals made by the CCWG currently open for public comment.

Highly unusually for a public comment period, the ICANN board is going to be a commenter in this case. While its comments have not been published yet, it has taken advice from its lawyers at Jones Day that may give an indication of how it is leaning.

Wednesday night’s call was designed to give the board the chance to bring its initial thinking to the CCWG.

Instead, it wound up being almost entirely about the proposed membership model and the board’s statements that while it supported the CCWG’s proposals 100% it also wanted them fundamentally rewritten.

The board wants the idea of a Sole Member model thrown out and replaced with a new arbitration process that would be legally enforceable in California courts.

So, instead of a legal-entity “member” suing ICANN, some as-yet unidentified community entity would take ICANN to arbitration. The decision of the arbitration panel could then be enforced by the courts if ICANN failed to abide by it.

When CCWG members asked who, in the absence of a legal entity, would take ICANN to arbitration and then sue it, the board had no answer. Instead, directors said the CCWG’s legal advisers should talk to Jones Day to hammer out the “technical” details.

Some members claimed that it would be “impossible” to give the community legal standing to sue ICANN without a membership model. Others said that the board’s 11th hour suggested rewrites would make it “impossible” to hit the deadline for a final proposal by the Dublin meeting next month.

At least a third of the 2-hour 47-minute call was wasted as the CCWG struggled to understand the doublespeak the board had brought into the discussion.

Directors continually insisted that they “completely supported” CCWG’s proposals on enforcement “without reservation”, while simultaneously saying the Sole Member model should be thrown out.

Half way through the call, CCWG co-chair Thomas Rickert reflected exasperation among members: “There is obviously difficulty to understand by many on this call how you fully support what we are doing while proposing something which appears like a complete rewrite.”

Shortly thereafter, Chehade responded:

Why don’t we just agree that we are agreeing with you that the community must be able to get enforcement in California courts, that we will ensure that they have the standing to do it without question. And if we are all in agreement that we are in agreement with each other let’s then let the technical people go solve this. If they call come back and tell us that frankly that advice was flawed, then let’s deal with it then in good faith. But that’s what we’re sharing with you.

Directors said that the proposed member model might have unintended consequences, and that the US government may not approve a proposal that overly complicates ICANN’s legal structure.

An hour later, the CCWG was still scratching its head, nerves were beginning to wear, and the tone was getting increasingly testy as the CCWG repeatedly asked the board to explain how it could express support and simultaneously propose an alternative solution.

“There is absolutely no new proposal,” Chehade said, eventually. “We are embracing your proposal and the objectives of the community. Please hear me on this. There is no new proposal.”

He said:

Take your work and break it down: board removal, standing reconsideration, enhancing – getting the IRP back on the track we set, you know, fundamental bylaw, binding arbitration or mechanisms of enforceability. All of the things you have come up with, we are accepting. So when your reaction to our two last hours is that we’re refusing to add any accountability, I don’t know how you come to that frankly…

you yourself in the proposal say that this proposal is not finished, it needs a lot of work. So what we’re saying to you is let’s take this proposal which is not finished and let’s figure out ways to make it real, and real in the next few weeks so we can move forward…

The only area where we are telling you we would like to propose a different mechanism to achieve the same goal is the enforceability.

The whole three hours reminded me of a nightmare-scenario interview where the interviewee has been media-trained up the wazoo and refuses to sway from a set of vaguely scripted talking points.

But which proposal is the right one for ICANN?

Beats me. What does seem quite clear to me is that the board and CCWG are at odds now, despite what ICANN says, and that the expected delivery of a final accountability proposal by Dublin is in serious doubt.

Following the call, ICANN chair Steve Crocker posted a blog post that sought to clarify the board’s position, characterizing it as agreement in principle but disagreement on implementation. He wrote:

We have suggestions on how these [CCWG proposals] could be operationalized. With regards to the mechanisms for community enforceability, where the current proposal still warrants much detail that may not be achievable we have a suggestion on how to deliver on it in a stable way, as increased enforceability must not open up questions of, for example, capture or diminishing of checks and balances.

The Wednesday meeting’s audio, transcript and other notes can all be found here.

US gives ICANN an extra year to complete transition

Kevin Murphy, August 18, 2015, Domain Policy

US government oversight of ICANN and the domain name system will end a year later than originally expected.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said last night that it has extended ICANN’s IANA contract until September 30, 2016, giving the community and others more time to complete and review the transition proposals.

NTIA assistant secretary Larry Strickling wrote that “it has become increasingly apparent over the last few months that the community needs time to complete its work, have the plan reviewed by the U.S. Government and then implement it if it is approved.”

Simultaneously, NTIA has finally published a proposal — written by ICANN and Verisign — for how management of the DNS root will move away from hands-on US involvement.

The extension of the IANA contract from its September 30, 2015 end date was not unexpected. The current contract allows for such extensions.

As we recently reported, outgoing ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade had guessed a mid-2016 finalization of the transition.

Regardless, expect op-eds in the coming days to claim this as some kind of political victory against the Obama administration.

Part of the reason for the extension, beyond the fact that the ICANN community hasn’t finished its work yet, is legislation proposed in the US.

The inappropriately named DOTCOM Act, passed by the House but frozen for political reasons in the Senate by Tea Party presidential hopeful Sen Ted Cruz, would give Congress 30 legislative days (which could equal months of real time) to review the IANA transition proposals.

There are basically three prongs to the transition, each with very long names.

The “Proposal to Transition the Stewardship of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Functions from the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to the Global Multistakeholder Community” is the first.

That was created by the multistakeholder IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) and deals with how the IANA contract will be managed after the US government goes away.

The second prong comes from the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability, which deals with how ICANN itself can improve its accountability to the internet community without the Damoclean sword of US intervention hanging over it.

The CCWG’s latest draft report would strengthen the ICANN board against capture by, for example, making certain bylaws harder to amend and giving the community the right to fire directors.

Both of these proposals are currently open for public comment here.

The third prong, which only appears to have been published this week, deals with the nuts and bolts of how changes to the DNS root zone are made.

The current system is a tripartite arrangement between IANA, NTIA and Verisign.

When a TLD operator needs a change to the DNS root — for example adding a name server for its TLD — the request is submitted to and processed by IANA, sent to NTIA for authorization, then actually implemented on the primary root server by Verisign.

Under the new proposal (pdf) to phase the NTIA out of this arrangement, the NTIA’s “authorization” role would be temporarily complemented by a parallel “authentication” role.

The proposal is not written in the clearest English, even by ICANN standards, but it seems that the current Root Zone Management System would be duplicated in its entirety and every change request would have to be processed by both systems.

The output of both would be compared for discrepancies before Verisign actually made the changes to the root.

It seems that this model is only being proposed as a temporary measure, almost like a proof of concept to demonstrate that the NTIA’s current authorization role isn’t actually required and won’t be replaced in this brave new world.

TLD to be removed from the DNS next week

The DNS has been growing by, on average 1.1 top-level domains per day for the last 18 months or so, but that trajectory is set to change briefly next week when a TLD is removed.

The ccTLD .an, which represented the former Netherlands Antilles territories, is expected to be retired on July 31, according to published correspondence between ICANN and the Dutch government.

Three territories making up the former Dutch colony — Sint Maarten, Curaçao, and Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba — gained autonomy in 2010, qualifying them for their own ccTLDs.

They were granted .sx, .cw and .bq respectively. While the first two are live, .bq has not yet been delegated, though the Dutch government says it is close to a deal with a registry.

The Dutch had asked ICANN/IANA for a second extension to the removal deadline, to October 31, but this request was either turned down or retracted after talks at the ICANN Buenos Aires meeting.

Only about 20 registrants are still using .an, according to ICANN.

The large majority of .an names still showing up in Google redirect to other sites in .nl, .com, .sx or .cw.

.an is the second ccTLD to face removal this year after .tp, which represented Portuguese Timor, the nation now known as East Timor or Timor Leste (.tl).

The IANA transition in a nutshell

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2015, Domain Policy

The US plan to remove itself from its unique DNS oversight role is about creating a coalition of nations to thwart attempts by Russia and other “authoritarian” countries to increase government control of the internet.

That’s according to Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who delivered a beautifully succinct explanation to confused senators at a hearing in Washington DC this week.

Despite unnecessary diversions into issues such as net neutrality and copyright protection — which I’m sure was not at all due to senators trying to score points with their corporate paymasters — the Commerce Committee hearing was surprising well-informed and not nearly as angry as it could have been.

Senators, mostly Republicans, reiterated their concerns that for the US to give up its role in the IANA functions contract could invite a takeover of ICANN by unfriendly nations such as China and Russia, thereby harming internet freedom.

At one point, Strickling was asked by a senator: “If there’s not a problem, what are we trying to fix here?”

His answer was one the best explanations of the political back-story of the transition that I’ve heard, so I’m going to quote it in full here.

There has been a problem, sir. At the end of 2012 when the world’s governments got together in Dubai for the ITU WCIT — World Conference on International Telecommunications — you had around 80 countries who voted to say the ITU needs to be more involved in internet governance. These were largely countries in the developing world siding with the more authoritarian regimes.

Part of the impetus for this was the continued irritation that many governments have, that has been exploited by authoritarian countries, that the United States with its special role with ICANN is in a position to control the internet in these developing counties and to turn it off in these countries and to otherwise interfere with the ability of countries to manage their own affairs with respect to the internet.

After this [IANA transition] announcement was made the next two large international meetings at which governments came together you saw a major change in position among the developing countries. We didn’t see any change in position from the authoritarian countries — and you’re not, they’re not going to change their views on this. But the key to succeeding in this on the global stage is to bring the rest of the world along with us, and that’s what we saw at the NETmundial conference in Brazil last April where the only countries who spoke out against the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance were Russia and Cuba.

We then flash forward to the ITU plenipotentiary conference in Busan last November and again you had Russia with the same proposals it’s been making for 10 years: that these functions ought to be transferred to the ITU and managed by governments. And that was beaten back by a coalition of developed and developing countries. So we’ve seen immediate results, or significant results, by the basis of our having been able to take this issue off the table for these countries, to get them to look at what’s really best for them without this overhang of a US role that was unique among governments and which was a source of irritation to governments and was being exploited to our detriment by foreign governments.

The fact of the matter is that the role we play with respect of the IANA functions is a clerical role. It’s truly stewardship. As I said before, we don’t provide any oversight of the policy judgments that ICANN and the multi-stakeholder community make. We participate as a government in the Governmental Advisory Committee, and we will continue to do that in future and will be vigorous advocates for a free and open internet.

The special role we play with respect of the IANA functions is totally administrative and clerical, yet it has been exploited by other governments — authoritarian governments — to our detriment. We’ve taken that off to the table by announcing this transition and as we complete it we will continue to see the benefits of that through the continued adoption and support for this model by the developing world.

His views were echoed by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade more than once during the hearing, talking about how the transition process is designed to bring on board the “middle countries”, rather than already-allied nations or the fringe, minority authoritarian countries.

He cited Brazil as the key example of a government once in favor of more ITU control of the internet that is now, largely due to Chehade’s outreach and its key role in the NETmundial conference, firmly in the multi-stakeholder model camp.

The entire archived hearing can be viewed here.