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Registrar accused of pimping prescription penis pills

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2016, Domain Registrars

ICANN has implicated a Chinese domain name registrar in the online selling of medications, including Viagra and Cialis, without the required prescription.

The organization’s Compliance department filed a contract breach notice with Nanjing Imperiosus, which does business as DomainersChoice.com, today.

The move follows an allegation from pharmacy watchdog LegitScript in the US Congress that DomainersChoice is “rogue internet pharmacy operator”.

Because ICANN has no authority to police online pharmacies, it’s gone after the registrar based on an obscure part of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

Section 3.7.7 of the 2013 RAA says that domains must be registered to a third party, unless they’re used by the registrar in the course of providing its registrar services.

According to ICANN, DomainersChoice has refused to provide evidence that many of its domains are not in fact registered to itself and CEO Stefan Hansmann, in violation of this clause.

It cites 5mg-cialis20mg.com, acheterdutadalafil.com, viagra-100mgbestprice.net and 100mgviagralowestprice.net as examples of domains apparently registered to Hansmann and his company.

Historical Whois records show Hansmann and Nanjing Imperiosus as the registrant of these names until recently.

The domains all refer to erectile dysfunction medicines, which are usually only available in the US with a prescription.

A reverse Whois lookup reveals Hansmann’s name in the records for many more pharmaceuticals-related domains, some of which are for more serious medical conditions.

Several of the domains contain the words “without prescription” or similar, where the drug in question requires a prescription in the US.

Some of the domains do not currently resolve or no longer provide current Whois records and others have been recently transferred, but some resolve to apparently active e-commerce sites.

ICANN’s breach notice (pdf) doesn’t allege any illegal activity.

The same cannot be said for LegitScript CEO John Horton, who lumped DomainersChoice in with a few other registrars he believes are operating “illegal online pharmacies”.

Horton testified (pdf) before Congress last month that the registrar was playing host to 2,300 such sites.

The testimony was filed September 14, the same day ICANN began its compliance investigation.

ICANN’s notice, which alleges a handful of other relatively trivial breaches, asks that Hansmann provide a full list of domains registered in his and his company’s name via DomainersChoice.

It also demands evidence that the domains were either used to provide registrar services or were registered to a third party.

It wants all that by November 2, after which it may start to terminate the company’s RAA.

Grogan hopeful of content policing clarity within “a few weeks”

ICANN may be able to provide registrars, intellectual property interests and others with clarity about when domain names should be suspended as early as next month, according to compliance chief Allen Grogan.

With ICANN 53 kicking off in Buenos Aires this weekend, Grogan said he intends to meet with a diverse set of constituents in order to figure out what the Registrar Accreditation Agreement requires registrars to do when they receive abuse complaints.

“I’m hopeful we can publish something in the next few weeks,” he told DI. “It depends to some extent on what direction the discussions take.”

The discussions center on whether registrars are doing enough to take down domains that are being used, for example, to host pirated content or to sell medicines across borders.

Specifically at issue is section 3.18 of the 2013 RAA.

It requires registrars to take “reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately” when they receive abuse reports.

The people who are noisiest about filing such reports — IP owners and pharmacy watchdogs such as LegitScript — reckon “appropriate action” means the domain in question should be suspended.

The US Congress heard these arguments in hearings last month, but there were no witnesses from the ICANN or registrar side to respond.

Registrars don’t think they should be put in the position of having to turn off what may be a perfectly legitimate web site due to a unilateral complaint that may be flawed or frivolous.

ICANN seems to be erring strongly towards the registrars’ view.

“Whatever the terms of the 2013 RAA mean, it can’t really be interpreted as a broad global commitment for ICANN to enforce all illegal activity or all laws on the internet,” Grogan told DI.

“I don’t think ICANN is capable of that, I don’t think we have the expertise or resources to do that, and I don’t think the ICANN multistakeholder community has ever had that discussion and delegated that authority to ICANN,” he said.

CEO Fadi Chehade recently told the Washington Post that it isn’t ICANN’s job to police web content, and Grogan has expanded on that view in a blog post last week.

Grogan notes that what kind of content violates the law varies wildly from country to country — some states will kill you for blasphemy, in some you can get jail time for denying the Holocaust, in others political dissent is a crime.

“Virtually everybody I’ve spoken with has said that is far outside the scope of ICANN’s remit,” he said.

However, he’s leaving some areas open for discussion,

“There are some constituents, including some participants in the [Congressional] hearing — from the intellectual property community and LegitScript — who think there’s a way to distinguish some kinds of illegal activities from others,” he said. “That’s a discussion I’m willing to have.”

The dividing line could be substantial risk to public health or activities that are broadly, globally deemed to be illegal. Child abuse material is the obvious one, but copyright infringement — where Grogan said treaties show “near unanimity” — could be too.

So is ICANN saying it’s not the content police except when it comes to pharmacies and intellectual property?

“No,” said Grogan. “I’m saying I’m willing to engage in that dialogue and have that conversation with the community to see if there’s consensus that some activities are different to others.”

“In a multistakeholder model I don’t think any one constituency should control,” he said.

In practical terms, this all boils down to 3.18 of the RAA, and what steps registrars must take to comply with it.

It’s a surprisingly tricky one even if, like Grogan, you’re talking about “minimum criteria” for compliance.

Should registrars, for example, be required to always check out the content of domains that are the subject of abuse reports? It seems like a no-brainer.

But Grogan points out that even though there could be broad consensus that child abuse material should be taken down immediately upon discovery, in many places it could be illegal for a registrar employee to even check the reported URL, lest they download unwanted child porn.

Similarly, it might seem obvious that abuse reports should be referred to the domain’s registrant for a response. But what of registrars owned by domain investors, where registrar and registrant are one and the same?

These and other topics will come up for discussion in various sessions next week, and Grogan said he’s hopeful that decisions can be made that do not need to involve formal policy development processes or ICANN board action.

Is the Defending Internet Freedom Act pro-crime?

The Defending Internet Freedom Act of 2015, introduced to the US Congress last month, contains a provision that could be interpreted as pro-pron, pro-piracy or even just pro-crime.

The act is designed to prevent the US giving up its oversight of ICANN/IANA unless certain quite strict conditions are met.

It’s a revised version of a bill that was introduced last year but didn’t make it through the legislative process.

Like the 2014 version, it says that the US cannot sever ties with ICANN until its bylaws have been amended in various ways, including:

ICANN is prohibited from engaging in activities unrelated to ICANN’s core mission or entering into an agreement or modifying an existing agreement to impose on a registrar or registry with which ICANN conducts business any condition (such as a condition relating to the regulation of content) that is unrelated to ICANN’s core mission.

It’s the “regulation of content” bit that caught my eye.

Presumably written as a fluffy, non-controversial protection against censorship, it ignores where the real content regulation conversations are happening within the ICANN community.

It’s a constant mantra of ICANN that is “doesn’t regulate content”, but the veracity of that assertion has been chipped away relentlessly over the last several years by law enforcement, governments and intellectual property interests.

Today, ICANN’s contracts are resplendent with examples of what could be argued is content regulation.

Take .sucks, for a timely example. Its Registry Agreement with ICANN contains provisions banning pornography, cyber-bulling and parked pages.

That’s three specific types of content that must not be allowed in any web site using a .sucks domain.

It’s one of the Public Interest Commitments that were voluntarily put forward by .sucks registry Vox Populi, but they’re still enforceable contract provisions.

Using a dispute resolution process (PICDRP), ICANN would be able to levy fines against Vox Pop, or terminate its contract entirely, if it repeatedly allows porn in .sucks web sites.

This sounds quite a lot like content regulation to me.

It’s not just .sucks, of course. Other registries have PICs that regulate the content of their gTLDs.

And every contracted new gTLD registry operator has to agree to this PIC:

Registry Operator will include a provision in its Registry-Registrar Agreement that requires Registrars to include in their Registration Agreements a provision prohibiting Registered Name Holders from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law, and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities including suspension of the domain name.

It’s convoluted, but it basically indirectly forces (via registrars) new gTLD domain registrants to, for example, agree to not infringe copyright.

The PIC is paired with a provision (3.18) of the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement that requires all registrars to investigate and “take necessary and appropriate actions” in response to abuse reports within 24 hours of receipt.

Section 3.18 is essentially the RAA mechanism through which ICANN can enforce the PIC from the RA.

This is currently one of the most divisive issues in the ICANN community, as we witnessed during the recent Congressional hearings into ICANN oversight.

On the one hand, big copyright owners and online pharmacy watchdogs want ICANN to act much more ruthlessly against registrars that fail to immediately take down sites that they have identified as abusive.

On the other hand, some registrars say that they should not have to engage in regulating what content their customers publish, at least without court orders, in areas that can sometimes be amorphously grey and fuzzy.

Steve Metalitz, from a trade group that represents the movie and music industies at ICANN, told the US Congress that registrars are dismissing piracy reports without investigating them, and that “unless registrars comply in good faith, and ICANN undertakes meaningful and substantive action against those who will not, these provisions will simply languish as empty words”.

John Horton from pharmacy watchdog used the same Congressional hearing to out several registrars he said were refusing to comply with 3.18.

One Canadian registrar named in Horton’s testimony told DI that every complaint it has received from LegitScript has been about a web site that is perfectly legal in Canada.

In at least some cases, it seems that those pushing for ICANN to more stringently regulate content may have “internet freedom” as the least of their concerns.

If the Defending Internet Freedom Act becomes law in the US, perhaps it could prove a boon to registries and registrars upset with constant meddling from rights owners and others.

On the other hand, perhaps it could also prove a boon for those operating outside the law.

A quarter of registrar’s names are “illicit pharmacies”

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2015, Domain Services

One in four of the domain names registered with the registrar NetLynx are linked to current, past or potential future rogue drug sites, according to online pharmacy monitor LegitScript.

The Mumbai-based registrar was hit with a breach notice by ICANN Compliance last week, over an alleged failure to investigate an abuse complaint about a single customer domain, tnawsol24h.com.

NetLynx did not adequately respond to ICANN’s calls from November 26 to January 5, according to the notice (pdf).

While ICANN did not identify the source or nature of the complaint, according to LegitScript it was filed by the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and it claimed that the domain was being used as a “rogue internet pharmacy”.

LegitScript did some research into NetLynx’s domains under management and now claims that it is not an isolated case.

Company president John Horton blogged:

at least a quarter of the registrar’s business is dependent on rogue Internet pharmacy registrations, with roughly 3,000 of the 12,000 domain names under the registrar’s portfolio taggable as current, past or “holding sites” for illicit online pharmacies.

Horton clarified for DI that the 3,000 number is extrapolated from the fact that LegitScript managed to categorize 1,820 out of the 7,000 NetLynx domains it could find as problematic.

Of those, 820 were “online and active” rogue pharmacies, he said. He gave canadian-drug-pharmacy.com, pills-delivery.net and pillsforlife.net as examples.

Another 780 were hosting rogue pharmacies in the past but have since been shut down, he said.

Finally, LegitScript categorized 220 as “meeting known patterns” for “holding sites” where illicit pharmacies may be launched in future. Horton said:

many of the spam pharma organizations use “holding domain names” (not all are online at any one time), so if the website was NOT currently online, we looked to a variety of data — known domain name patterns, screenshots, known rogue name servers, known rogue IP addresses, etc. — to determine the likelihood that a domain name is likely to be a rogue Internet pharmacy, and gave NetLynx the benefit of the doubt if there was any lack of certainty

LegitScript classifies online pharmacies as “rogue” if they offer to ship medicines without a prescription to people in jurisdictions where prescriptions are required.

Horton is now calling for ICANN to look into terminating NetLynx’s accreditation.

.health backer has cop-like takedown powers for all gTLDs in Japan

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2014, Domain Registrars

LegitScript, a US company focused on eradicating illegal online pharmacies, which backs the .pharmacy and .health gTLDs, has been given police-like powers to have domain names taken down in Japan.

It has also emerged that when IP Mirror, a brand protection registrar, was hit with an embarrassing ICANN contract-breach notice in November, it was as a result of a LegitScript complaint.

Under section 3.18.2 of ICANN’s 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement, registrars must have a 24/7 abuse hotline that can be used by “law enforcement, consumer protection, quasi-governmental or other similar authorities” to report illegal activity.

Registrars must act on complaints made to the hotline within 24 hours, but only authorities designated by national governments get to use it.

Now, it transpires that LegitScript has been formally designated a 3.18.2 authority by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

That means the US company’s complaints about domains hosting potentially illegal pharmacy sites have the same weight as complaints from the Japanese police, when made to registrars that have an office in Japan, even if they’re headquartered elsewhere.

IP Mirror, which was recently acquired by CSC Digital Brand Services, is based in Singapore but has an office in Tokyo.

As far as I can tell, most of the top 10 registrars do not have offices in Japan. KeyDrive (Moniker, Key-Systems etc) may be the exception. GMO is the largest registrar based in Japan.

LegitScript announced its relationship with the Japanese ministry in September (I missed it at the time) and company president John Horton provided some context to the IP Mirror breach notice on CircleID today.

I only report the deal today because it strikes me as noteworthy that a private enterprise has been given the same powers under the 2013 RAA as law enforcement and government consumer protection agencies — and it’s not even in its home territory.

Horton told DI today that while LegitScript is legally based in the US and has offices in the EU, only Japan has so far formally granted it 3.18.2 powers. He said in an email:

We only have formal Section 3.18.2 designation in Japan at present. We have some other endorsements or recommendations by or on behalf of government authorities, although they do not specifically reference Section 3.18.2. We work closely with the Italian Medicines Agency and the Irish Medicines Board, for example, and report rogue Internet pharmacies in consultation with them.

Horton pointed out that anybody is able to to file abuse complaints under the 2013 RAA — and registrars are obliged to “take reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately”.

His CircleID piece cites two instances in which such complaints from LegitScript resulted in ICANN breach notices.

The chief difference is that under 3.18.2 registrars do not have much flexibility in their response times. They have to “take necessary and appropriate actions” within a black-and-white 24-hour deadline.

FDA to get domain name takedown role?

Kevin Murphy, October 4, 2010, Domain Policy

The US Food and Drug Administration may in future take a stronger role in having domain names associated with rogue internet pharmacies shut down.

Following the meeting between domain name registrars and registries and the Obama administration at the White House last week, I reached out to a few attendees to find out what was discussed.

I didn’t have much luck, to be honest. Some said the meeting was quite dull. But Christine Jones, Go Daddy’s general counsel, was good enough to answer a few questions via email.

The meeting was scheduled to discuss voluntary measures domain firms can take to shut down web sites selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals. I asked whether any specific solutions were discussed.

Jones replied: “Not specifically. There could be an FDA-led solution at some point, which Go Daddy supports.”

The FDA has taken action against illegal online pharmacies in the past, but it does not currently appear to do so on a day-to-day basis.

In November 2009, the agency sent warning letters to the operators of 136 web sites that appeared to be selling medicines illegally. The letters were also sent to the registrars of record for the sites’ domains, most of which were taken down.

The FDA said at the time that the intention was to alert the registrars that the registrants in question may have been in violation of their terms of service and eligible for termination.

In general, the FDA says that overseas pharmacies selling prescription drugs into the US, whether counterfeit or not, is illegal. What this would mean for any “FDA-led solution” is a matter for speculation.

It’s well-known that sick people in the US tend to pay more for their prescription drugs than in other nations, due in part to years of protectionist policies designed to keep the pharma business healthy.

While there are plenty of crooks selling potentially dangerous bogus pills online, some say there are also many legitimate Canadian pharmacies online that supply authentic products more cheaply to US-based prescription holders.

Currently, many US registrars use services such as LegitScript to identify potentially infringing sites. Demand Media’s registrar, eNom, is the most recent convert.

LegitScript, which also only approves US pharmacies, is subject to a certain degree of controversy.

Last week it threatened to sue a web site that made a number of allegations about its financing and the motivations of founder John Horton.

Horton founded LegitScript in 2007, shortly after leaving his Bush administration role as associate deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

LegitScript’s main competitor, PharmacyChecker.com, recently asked the US Congress to investigate Horton for alleged ethics violations, claiming he set up LegitScript while still in government.

In April 2007, the ONDCP issued a report which harshly criticized PharmacyChecker for approving Canadian pharmacies that sell drugs to US citizens over the internet, which it said was illegal.

The domain name legitscript.com was initially registered on March 20, 2007. The earliest Whois record I can find, from July that year, shows Horton was the registrant.

Horton’s LinkedIn profile says he left the administration in May 2007.

It seems likely that even if LegitScript did not exist until Horton was out of government, he was preparing its foundations months earlier, at the same time as his office was trashing his future competitor.

Finally, to return to last week’s White House meeting, I asked Go Daddy’s Jones whether the focus was on healthcare or IP protection, and she had this to say:

The focus of this particular meeting was definitely not IP protection. Although IPEC [Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator] organized the meeting, there were administration officials and law enforcement attending from many areas of the government. The focus was on finding ways to deal with the rogue pharmacy issue, to get non-compliant registrars to join the fight, and to beef up AUPs to cover registrars in these cases.

She also said that the topic of COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, was not raised.

As I’ve previously reported, ICANN did not attend the White House meeting.