Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

Pirates lose privacy rights under new ICANN rules

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2016, Domain Registrars

People operating piracy web sites would have a harder time keeping their personal information private under new ICANN rules.

ICANN’s GNSO Council last night approved a set of recommendations that lay down the rules of engagement for when trademark and copyright owners try to unmask Whois privacy users.

Among other things, the new rules would make it clear that privacy services are not permitted to reject requests to reveal a domain’s true owner just because the IP-based request relates to the content of a web site rather than just its domain name.

The recommendations also contain safeguards that would allow registrants to retain their privacy if, for example, their safety would be at risk if their identities were revealed.

The 93-page document (pdf) approved unanimously by the Council carries a “Illustrative Disclosure Framework” appendix that lays out the procedures in some depth.

The framework only covers requests from IP owners to proxy/privacy services. The GNSO was unable to come up with a similar framework for dealing with, for example, requests from law enforcement agencies.

It states flatly:

Disclosure [of the registrant’s true Whois details] cannot be refused solely for lack of any of the following: (i) a court order; (ii) a subpoena; (iii) a pending civil action; or (iv) a UDRP or URS proceeding; nor can refusal to disclose be solely based on the fact that the Request is founded on alleged intellectual property infringement in content on a website associated with the domain name.

This fairly explicitly prevents privacy services (which in most cases are registrars) using the “we don’t regulate content” argument to shoot down disclosure requests from IP owners.

Some registrars were not happy about this paragraph in early drafts, yet it remains.

Count that as a win for the IP lobby.

However, the new recommendations spend a lot more time giving IP owners a quite strict set of guidelines for how to file such requests in the first place.

If they persistently spam the registrar with automated disclosure requests, the registrar is free to ignore them. They can even share details of spammy IP owners with other registrars.

The registrar is also free to ignore requests that, for example, don’t give the exact or representative URL of an alleged copyright infringement, or if the requester has not first attempted to contact the registrant via an email relay service, should one be in place.

The registrant also gets a 15-day warning that somebody has requested their private details, during which, if they value their privacy more than their web site, they’re able to relinquish their domain and remain anonymous.

If the registrant instead uses that time to provide a good reason why they’re not infringing the requester’s rights, and the privacy service agrees, the request can also be denied.

The guidelines would make it easier for privacy service operators to understand what their obligations are. By formalizing the request format, it should make it easier to separate legit requests from the spurious requests.

They’re even allowed to charge IP owners a nominal fee to streamline the processing of their requests.

While these recommendations have been approved by the GNSO Council, they need to be approved by the ICANN board before becoming the law of the ‘net.

They also need to pass through an implementation process (conducted by ICANN staff and GNSO members) that turns the recommendations into written procedures and contracts which, due to their complexity, I have a hunch will take some time.

The idea is that the rules will form part of an accreditation program for privacy/proxy services, administered by ICANN.

Registrars would only be able to use P/P services that agree to follow these rules and that have been accredited by ICANN.

It seems to me that the new rules may be quite effective at cracking down on rogue, “bulletproof” registrars that automatically dismiss piracy-based disclosure requests by saying they’re not qualified to adjudicate copyright disputes.

Radiohead backs .music community bid

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2015, Domain Registries

Ed O’Brien, guitarist with the band Radiohead, has become the latest musician to throw his support behind DotMusic’s community-based application for the new gTLD .music.

In a letter to ICANN today (pdf), O’Brien said that if DotMusic loses its ongoing Community Priority Evaluation, it will “be setting back the world’s chances of a Fair Trade Music Industry by many years”.

“I challenge The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers views that the global music community to which I belong does not exist,” he wrote.

He’s arguably the highest-profile musician to support DotMusic to date. Radiohead have sold over 30 million records and a few years ago O’Brien was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 59th greatest guitarist of all time.

The phrase “Fair Trade Music Industry” appears to have been coined last week at TechCrunch Disrupt by Grammy-nominated musician Imogen Heap, another one of DotMusic’s celebrity supporters.

It refers to the notion that artists should be fairly compensated for their work, opposing services such as Spotify, which reportedly pays artists less than a tenth of a cent every time one of their songs is played.

Both Heap and Radiohead are noted for their innovative uses of technology in their music (for example, listen to Radiohead’s incredible 1997 album OK Computer, bootlegs of which are available to stream for free on YouTube).

Radiohead is also known for its love-hate relationship with internet-based music business models.

In 2007, Radiohead released a new album for free on its web site, allowing fans to set their own price. But in 2013, it pulled its back catalog from Spotify, with lead singer Thom Yorke calling the service “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”.

Its music is back on Spotify now.

But you can see why the band would support DotMusic’s application for .music, which proposes a number of novel rights protection mechanisms covering not just trademarks, but also copyright.

One interesting proposal is to ban any domain name from .music if a matching domain in another TLD has received over 10,000 copyright infringement notices from a big music industry body. This is to prevent TLD “hopping” affecting .music.

So, for example, if thepiratebay.com had received 10,000 notices, thepiratebay.music would be permanently blocked from registration.

The company is proposing a somewhat restricted namespace too, where only “community members” are allowed to register domains.

But prospective registrants merely need to self-identify as a member of one of the community’s dozens of subsets — which includes “fans” and “bloggers” — in order to register.

Parking will be prohibited, however, which would cut down on domain investor speculation.

Quite how .music will enhance the move for “fair trade” for artists is not entirely clear from O’Brien’s letter. After .music launches, there will still be hundreds of other TLDs that do not have DotMusic’s rules in place.

It’s also unlikely that the Economist Intelligence Unit, which is currently handling the CPE, will even see O’Brien’s letter.

ICANN told DotMusic (pdf) recently that the EIU “may not consider” any support letters received after October 13, which was two months after the official deadline for letters to be submitted.

DotMusic has letters of support — mostly the same letter with a different signature — from literally hundreds of musicians, trade groups, producers and publishers.

CEO Constantine Roussos told DI last week that it has more support letters than all the other “Community” gTLD applicants combined.

He said he’s confident that DotMusic’s CPE will be successful, citing positive precedent set by EIU panels in .osaka, .hotel and .radio CPE cases.

But the closest precedent we have so far is the Far Further application for .music, which comprehensively lost its CPE a year ago, scoring just three points out of the available 16, well short of the 14-point passing score.

There are differences between the applications, but Far Further’s CPE panel told it that there was no such thing as “the music community”, which sets a pretty high bar for DotMusic to leap.

If DotMusic wins its CPE, the remaining seven competing applications for the string get kicked out of the program. If it loses, it goes to an auction it has little chance of winning.

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.

KickAssTorrents continues world tour after latest ccTLD ban

Kevin Murphy, April 24, 2015, Domain Registries

One of the most popular sites for finding copyright-infringing BitTorrent files is reportedly heading to Costa Rica after its latest choice of ccTLD banned it.

KickAssTorrents, which is about the 100th most-popular site on the web, had moved to kickasstorrents.im yesterday, but found its new domain deleted by the Isle of Man registry in a matter of hours.

The site’s owners have TorrentFreak said they now plan to move to kat.cr, in the Costa Rican ccTLD.

KAT has previously been hosted in Somalia’s .so, Tonga’s .to and the Philippines’ .ph.

Here in the UK, major ISPs are obliged to block access to the site after a court ruling.