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US asks if it should take back control over ICANN

Kevin Murphy, June 6, 2018, Domain Policy

The US government has asked the public whether it should reverse its 2016 action to relinquish oversight of the domain name system root.

“Should the IANA Stewardship Transition be unwound? If yes, why and how? If not, why not?”

That’s the surprisingly direct question posed, among many others, in a notice of inquiry (pdf) issued yesterday by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The inquiry “is seeking comments and recommendations from all interested stakeholders on its international internet policy priorities for 2018 and beyond”. The deadline for comments is July 2.

The IANA transition, which happened in September 2016, saw the NTIA remove itself from the minor part it played, alongside meatier roles for ICANN and Verisign, in the old triumvirate of DNS root overseers.

At the handover, ICANN baked many of its previous promises to the US government into its bylaws instead, and handed oversight of itself over to the so-called Empowered Community, made up of internet stakeholders of all stripes.

The fact that the question is being asked at all would have been surprising not too long ago, but new NTIA chief David Redl and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed their willingness to look into a reversal as recently as January.

Back then Redl told Congresspeople, in response to questions raised primarily by Senator Ted Cruz during his confirmation process:

I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the IANA transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal. To that end, if I am confirmed I will recommend to Secretary Ross that we begin the process by convening a panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition.

Cruz had objected to the transition largely based on his stated (albeit mistaken or disingenuous) belief that it gave China, Iran and a plethora of bad guys control over Americans’ freedom of speech, something that has manifestly failed to materialize.

But in the meantime another big issue has arisen — GDPR, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation — which is in the process of eroding access rights to Whois data, beloved of US law enforcement and intellectual property interests.

NTIA is known to be strongly in favor of retaining access to this data to the greatest extent possible.

The notice of inquiry does not mention Whois or GDPR directly but it does ask several arguably related questions:

A. What are the challenges to the free flow of information online?

B. Which foreign laws and policies restrict the free flow of information online? What is the impact on U.S. companies and users in general?

C. Have courts in other countries issued internet-related judgments that apply national laws to the global internet? What have been the practical effects on U.S. companies of such judgements? What have the effects been on users?

NTIA’s statement announcing the inquiry prominently says that the agency is “working on” items such as “protecting the availability of WHOIS information”.

It also says it “has been a strong advocate for the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance and policy development”.

While GPDR and Whois are plainly high-priority concerns for NTIA, it’s beyond my ken how reversing the IANA transition would help at all.

GDPR is not ICANN policy, after all. It’s a European Union law that applies to all companies doing business in Europe.

Even if the US were to fully nationalize ICANN tomorrow and rewrite Whois policy to mandate the death penalty for any contracted party that refused to openly publish full Whois records, that would not make GDPR go away, it would probably just kick off a privacy trade war or mean that all US contracted parties would have to stop doing business in Europe.

That sounds like an extreme scenario, but Trump.

The NTIA’s inquiry closes July 2, so if you think the transition was a terrible idea or a wonderful idea, this is where to comment.

US and EU call for Whois to stay alive

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2018, Domain Policy

Government officials from both sides of the Atlantic have this week called on ICANN to preserve Whois as it currently is, in the face of incoming EU privacy law, at least for a select few users.

The European Commission wrote to ICANN to ask for a “pragmatic and workable solution” to the apparent conflict between the General Data Protection Regulation and the desire of some folks to continue to access Whois as usual.

Three commissioners said in a letter (pdf) that special consideration should be given to “public interests” including “ensuring cybersecurity and the stability of the internet, preventing and fighting crime, protecting intellectual property and copyright, or enforcing consumer protection measures”.

David Redl, the new head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, echoed these concerns in a speech at the State of the Net conference in Washington DC on Monday.

Redl said that the “preservation of the Whois service” is one of NTIA’s top two priorities at the moment. The other priority is pressing for US interests in the International Telecommunications Union, he said.

Calling Whois “a cornerstone of trust and accountability for the Internet”, Redl said the service “can, and should, retain its essential character while complying with national privacy laws, including the GDPR.”

“It is in the interests of all Internet stakeholders that it does,” he said. “And for anyone here in the US who may be persuaded by arguments calling for drastic change, please know that the US government expects this information to continue to be made easily available through the Whois service.”

He directly referred to the ability of regular internet users to access Whois for consumer protection purposes in his speech.

The European Commission appears to be looking at a more restrictive approach, but it did offer some concrete suggestions as to how GDPR compliance might be achieved.

For example, the commissioners’ letter appears to give tacit approval to the idea of “gated” access to Whois, but called for access by law enforcement to be streamlined and centralized.

It also suggests throttling as a mechanism to reduce abuse of Whois data, and makes it clear that registrants should always be clearly informed how their personal data will be used.

The deadline for GDPR compliance is May this year. That’s when the ability of EU countries to start to levy fines against non-compliant companies, which could run into millions of euros, kicks in.

While ICANN has been criticized by registries and registrars for moving too slowly to give them clarity on how to be GDPR-compliant while also sticking to the Whois provisions of their contracts, its pace has been picking up recently.

Two weeks ago it called for comments on three possible Whois models that could be used from May.

That comment period ended on Monday, and ICANN is expected to publish the model upon which further discussions will be based today.

Is the Trump administration really trying to reverse the IANA transition?

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2018, Domain Policy

Questions have been raised about the US government’s commitment to an independent ICANN, following the release of letters sent by two top Trump appointees.

In the letters, new NTIA head David Redl and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed an interest in looking at ways to “unwind” the IANA transition, which in 2016 severed the formal ties between ICANN and the US in DNS root zone management.

Responding to questions from senators during his lengthy confirmation process, now National Telecommunications and Information Administration assistant secretary Redl wrote:

I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the IANA transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal. To that end, if I am confirmed I will recommend to Secretary Ross that we begin the process by convening a panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition.

The letters were first obtained by Politico under the Freedom of Information Act. We’re publishing them here (pdf).

They were sent last August, when Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA role was being held up by Senator Ted Cruz, who vehemently opposed the transition because he said he thought it would give more power over online speech to the likes of Russia and China.

He was confirmed in November.

The question is whether Redl was serious about unwinding the transition, or whether he was just bullshitting Cruz in order to remove a roadblock to his confirmation.

Technically, he only promised to “recommend” convening a panel of experts to his boss, Ross.

NTIA declined to comment last week when DI asked whether the department still supports the IANA transition, whether any efforts are underway to unwind it, and whether the panel of experts has already been convened.

Redl’s statements on ICANN since his confirmation have been more or less consistent with his Obama-era predecessor, Larry Strickling, in terms of expressing support for multi-stakeholder models, but with perhaps some causes for concern.

During his first public speech, delivered at the CES show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Redl expressed support for multi-stakeholder internet governance amid pushes for more multi-lateral control within venues such as the International Telecommunications Union.

However, he added:

I’ll also focus on being a strong advocate for U.S. interests within ICANN. We need to ensure transparency and accountability in ICANN’s work. And in light of the implementation of the European General Data Privacy Regulation, or GDPR, we need to preserve lawful access to WHOIS data, which is a vital tool for the public.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be seeking out the views of stakeholders to understand how else NTIA can best serve American interests in these global Internet fora.

Could this be an allusion to the “panel of experts”? It’s unclear at this stage.

One of Redl’s first moves as NTIA chief was to slam ICANN for its lack of accountability concerning the shutdown of a review working group, but that was hardly a controversial point of view.

And in a letter to Senator Brian Schatz, the Democrat ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, sent earlier this month, Redl expressed support for the multi-stakeholder model and wrote:

NTIA will be a strong advocate for US interests with the Governmental Advisory Committee of the Internet Cooperation [sic] for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in the existing post-transition IANA phase. NTIA will also monitor the [IANA operator] Public Technical Identifiers (PTI) and take action as necessary to ensure the security and stability of the DNS root.

That certainly suggests NTIA is happy to work in the new paradigm, while the promise to “take action as necessary” against PTI may raise eyebrows.

While a lot of this may seem ambiguous, my hunch is that there’s not really much appetite to reverse the IANA transition. Apart from appeasing Cruz’s demons, what could possibly be gained?

Ross, quizzed by Cruz at his own confirmation hearing a year ago, seemed reluctant to commit to such a move.

New Trump appointee slams ICANN after security group shutdown

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2017, Domain Policy

Not even a month into the job, the US official with most direct responsibility over domain name policy has criticized ICANN for shutting down a security working group.

David Redl, the new assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to complain about its board unilaterally shutting down, temporarily, its supposedly independent Security, Stability and Resiliency of the DNS Review team.

He wrote that the action “calls into question” ICANN’s commitment to transparency and accountability, writing:

Everything documented to date about these reviews stresses the importance of openness, transparency and community consultation. Unfortunately, it seems that with the October 28th action, the ICANN Board violated these principles by substituting its judgement for that of the community.

SSR-2, as it is known, is one of the reviews previously mandated by ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US government (via the NTIA) but which can now be found instead embedded in its bylaws.

The ICANN board of directors temporarily suspended it in October, something like a soft reboot, after growing concerned that it was stepping outside of its mandate and that its members lacked expertise.

The move attracted broad criticism and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that Redl’s position is a controversial one — you’d be hard pressed to find any section of the community that wholeheartedly supports the board’s action.

Indeed, the US representative to the Governmental Advisory Committee voiced similar concerns at the ICANN meeting in Abu Dhabi in late October, prior to Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA job.

Redl took the post November 21, having been nominated by Donald Trump back in May, replacing Obama appointee Larry Strickling, who left the agency in January.

He’s the first NTIA chief since ICANN’s inception not to enjoy the special position of power over ICANN granted by the old IANA contract, which was scrapped in September 2016.

US “threatens” Costa Rica over Pirate Bay domains

Kevin Murphy, June 16, 2017, Domain Policy

The US government has been threatening to “close down” Costa Rica’s .cr registry over its refusal to take down a Pirate Bay domain name, according to the registry.

Representatives of the US embassy in Costa Rica have been badgering NIC.cr to take down thepiratebay.cr since 2015, according to a letter from Pedro León Azofeifa, president of Academia Nacional de Ciencias, which runs the registry.

The letter claims:

These interactions with the United States Embassy have escalated with time and include great pressure since 2016 that is exemplified by several phone calls, emails and meetings urging our ccTLD to take down the domain, even though this would go against our domain name policies

According to the letter, a US official “has mentioned threats to close our registry, with repeated harassment regarding our practices and operation policies and even personal negative comments directed to our Executive Director”.

The letter was sent to the chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee 10 days ago, CC’d to senior ICANN, Costa Rican and US governmental figures, and has been circulated this week in the Latin American domain name community.

The form of the alleged threats to close the registry is not clear, but it should be noted that prior to October 1 last year the US Department of Commerce, via its now-relinquished oversight of ICANN, played a key role in the administration of the DNS root zone.

The Pirate Bay is of course a popular directory of BitTorrent links largely used to disseminate pirated copies of movies and music, much of it American-made.

The site has been TLD-hopping for years, as registries around the world shut down its domains for violations of their own local rules. It has been live on thepiratebay.cr since December 2014, when its Swedish operation was shut down by authorities.

The NIC.cr letter says that its own policies follow international “best practices” and allow it to take down domains when presented with a Costa Rican court order, but that “the pressure and harassment [from the US] to take down the domain name without its proper process and local court order persists”.

The US Department of Commerce even pressured its Costa Rican counterpart to investigate NIC.cr, but that probe concluded that the registry was acting within its procedures, according to the letter.

It’s not the first attempt to get rid of the Pirate Bay this year.

Public Interest Registry in February announced a “UDRP for copyright” proposal that would allow copyright holders to have piracy disputes heard by independent arbitrators. It looked like a way to get unloved thepiratebay.org domain taken down without PIR having to take unilateral action.

That proposal was shelved after an outcry from the industry and civil rights watchdogs.

In April, one of the Pirate Bay’s founders launched a piracy-friendly domain registration service.

Just this week, the European Court of Justice ruled, after seven years of legal fights, that the Pirate Bay infringes copyright, raising the possibility of the site being blocked in more European countries.

The NIC.cr letter is dated June 6. It has not yet been published by ICANN or the GAC.