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ICANN loosens Whois privacy rules for registrars

Kevin Murphy, April 20, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN has made it easier for registries and registrars to opt-out of Whois-related contractual provisions when they clash with local laws.

From this week, accredited domain firms will not have to show that they are being investigated by local privacy or law enforcement authorities before they can request a waiver from ICANN.

Instead, they’ll be also be able to request a waiver preemptively with a statement from said authorities to the effect that the ICANN contracts contradict local privacy laws.

In both cases, the opt-out request will trigger a community consultation — which would include the Governmental Advisory Committee — and a review by ICANN’s general counsel, before coming into effect.

The rules are mainly designed for European companies, as the EU states generally enjoy stricter privacy legislation than their North American counterparts.

European registrars and registries have so far been held to a contract that may force them to break the law, and the only way to comply with the law would be to wait for a law enforcement proceeding.

ICANN already allows registrars to request waivers from the data retention provisions of the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement — which require the registrar to hold customer data for two years after the customer is no longer a customer.

Dozens of European registrars have applied for and obtained this RAA opt-out.

Pirate Bay founder launches piracy-friendly domain privacy service

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2017, Domain Registrars

The founder of controversial BitTorrent search engine The Pirate Bay has entered the domain name market with a new proxy service.

It’s called Njalla, it’s based in a Caribbean tax haven, and it says it offers a higher level of privacy protection than you get anywhere else.

The company described itself in its inaugural blog post today like this:

Think of us as your friendly drunk (but responsibly so) straw person that takes the blame for your expressions. As long as you keep within the boundaries of reasonable law and you’re not a right-wing extremist, we’re for promoting your freedom of speech, your political weird thinking, your kinky forums and whatever.

Founder Peter Sunde was reluctant to describe Njalla as a proxy registration service, but it’s difficult to think of another way of describing it.

When you buy a domain via the company’s web site, the name is registered by Njalla for itself. You can still use the domain as you would with a regular registrar, but the name is “owned” by Njalla (1337 LLC, based in Saint Kitts & Nevis).

The company is a Tucows reseller via OpenSRS, and it supports almost all gTLDs and several ccTLDs (it’s declined to support Uniregistry due to recent price increase announcements).

Prices are rather industry standard, with a .com setting you back €15 ($16).

The big difference appears to be that the service doesn’t want to know anything about its registrants. You can sign up with just an email address or, unusually, an XMPP address. It doesn’t want to know your name, home address, or anything like that.

This means that whenever Njalla receives a legal request for the user’s identity, it doesn’t have much to hand over.

It’s based on Nevis due to the strong privacy laws there, Sunde said.

Under what circumstances Njalla would suspend service to a customer and hand over their scant private information appears to be somewhat vague and based on the subjective judgement or politics of its management.

“As long as you don’t hurt anyone else, we’ll let you do your thing,” Sunde said.

Child abuse material is verboten. Spam is in a “gray zone” (although forbidden by Njalla’s terms of service).

Copyright infringement appears to be just fine and dandy, which might not be surprising. Sunde founded The Pirate Bay in 2003 and spent time in prison in Sweden for assisting copyright infringement as a result.

“You don’t hurt people by putting a movie online,” Sunde said. “You do hurt someone by putting child porn or revenge porn or stuff like that… If you look at any statistics on file sharing, it proves that the more people file-share the more money goes into the ecosystem of the media.”

While this is likely to upset the IP lobby within the domain name community, I think there’s a possibility that existing ICANN policy will soon have an impact on Njalla’s ability to operate as it hopes.

ICANN is in the process of implementing a privacy/proxy services accreditation program that will require registrars to only work with approved, accredited proxy services.

Sunde thinks Njalla doesn’t fall into the ICANN definition of a proxy service, and said his lawyers agree.

Personally, I can’t see the distinction. I expect ICANN Compliance will probably have to make a call one way or the other one day after the accreditation system comes online.

Did Whois blow the lid off a Labour leadership coup, or is this just pig-fuckery?

Kevin Murphy, February 28, 2017, Gossip

A British Member of Parliament has been forced to deny he was behind the registration of several domain names promoting him as a future leader of the Labour party.

Clive Lewis, until recently a member of the shadow cabinet, told the Guardian yesterday that he did not register the batch of domains, which included cliveforleader.org.uk, cliveforlabour.org.uk and their matching .org, .uk and .co.uk domains.

“None of this is true: I haven’t done this,” he told the paper, following a Huffington Post article revealing the names had been registered June 29 last year, just a couple of days after he was appointed shadow defence secretary.

Lewis resigned from the shadow cabinet three weeks ago after refusing to vote in favor of triggering the Article 50 process that will take the UK out of the European Union.

The Labour Party has been dogged by stories about potential leadership challenges ever since Jeremy Corbyn — popular among grassroots party members, unpopular with voters — took over.

Questions about Corbyn’s leadership reemerged last week after a disastrous by-election defeat for the party.

The domains were taken as an indication that Lewis had been plotting a coup for many months, which he has denied.

The Whois records do not support a conclusion one way or another.

Under Nominet rules, individuals are allowed to keep their phone number, postal and email addresses out of Whois if the domains are to be used for non-commercial purposes, a right the registrant of the names in question chose to exercise.

Public Whois records show the .uk names registered to “Clive Lewis”, but contain no contact information.

They do contain the intriguing statement “Nominet was able to match the registrant’s name and address against a 3rd party data source on 29-Jun-2016”, a standard notice under Nominet’s Whois validation program.

But Nominet does not validate the identity of registrants, nor does it attempt to link the registrant’s name to their purported address.

The statement in the Whois records translates merely that Nominet was able to discover that a person called Clive Lewis exists somewhere in the world, and that the postal address given is a real address.

The .org and .com domains, registered the same day by the same registrar, use a Whois privacy service and contain no information about the registrant whatsoever.

Lewis himself suspects the batch of names may have been registered by a political opponent in order to force him to deny that he registered them, noting that fellow MP Lisa Nandy had a similar experience last July.

His initial statement to HuffPo, on which he reportedly declined to elaborate, was:

A lesson from LBJ [US President Lyndon B Johnson] in how to smash an opponent. Legend has it that LBJ, in one of his early congressional campaigns, told one of his aides to spread the story that Johnson’s opponent f*cked pigs. The aide responded: ‘Christ, Lyndon, we can’t call the guy a pigf*cker. It isn’t true.’ To which LBJ supposedly replied: ‘Of course it ain’t true, but I want to make the son-of-a-bitch deny it.’

Since then, along with his denial to the Guardian, he’s told his local Norwich newspaper that he’s tasked his lawyers with finding out who registered the names.

“I have instructed a solicitor to go away and look at this. They can try and make sure we find the identity, the IP address and the payment details,” he told the Eastern Daily Press.

Registrars off the hook for silly ICANN transfer policy

Kevin Murphy, December 27, 2016, Domain Registrars

Domain name registrars have been assured that ICANN Compliance will not pursue them for failing to implement the new Transfer Policy on privacy-protected names.

As we reported late November, the new policy requires registrars to send out “change of registrant” confirmation emails whenever certain fields in the Whois are changed, regardless of whether the registrant has actually changed.

The GNSO Council pointed out to ICANN a number of unforeseen flaws in the policy, saying that vulnerable registrants privacy could be at risk in certain edge cases.

They also pointed out that the confirmation emails could be triggered, with not action by the registrant, when privacy services automatically cycle proxy email addresses in the Whois.

This appears to have already happened with at least one registrar that wasn’t paying attention.

But ICANN chair Steve Crocker told the GNSO Council chair last week that ICANN staff have been instructed to ignore violations of the new policy, which came into effect December 1, in cases involving privacy-protected domains (pdf).

It’s a temporary measure until the ICANN board decides whether or not to defer the issue to the GNSO working group currently looking at policies specifically for privacy and proxy services.

Privacy risk under new domain transfer policy

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2016, Domain Registrars

ICANN’s new domain Transfer Policy, which comes into effect tomorrow, creates risks for users of privacy/proxy services, registrars and others haved warned.

The policy could lead to private registrants having their contact information published in the public Whois for 60 days, the GNSO Council expects to formally tell ICANN this week.

“This could threaten privacy for at-risk registrants without clear benefit,” the Council says in a draft letter to the ICANN board.

The revised Transfer Policy was designed to help prevent domain hijacking.

The main change is that whenever there’s a “change of registrant”, the gaining and losing registrants both have to respond to confirmation emails before the change is processed.

However, “change of registrant” is defined in such a way that the confirmation emails would be triggered even if the registrant has not changed.

For example, if you change your last name in your Whois records due to marriage or divorce, or if you change email addresses, that counts as a change of registrant.

It now turns out that ICANN considers turning a privacy service on or off as a change of registrant, even though that only affects the public Whois data and not the underlying customer data held by the registrar.

The GNSO Council’s draft letter states:

ICANN has advised that any change to the public whois records is considered a change of registrant that is subject to the process defined through IRTP-C. Thus, turning a P/P service on or off is, from ICANN’s view, a change of registrant. It requires the CoR [change of registrant] process to be followed and more importantly could result in a registrant exposing his/her information in the public whois for 60 days. This could threaten privacy for at-risk registrants without clear benefit.

My understanding is that the exposure risk outlined here would only be to registrants who attempt to turn on privacy at their registrar then for whatever reason ignore, do not see or do not understand the subsequent confirmation emails.

Depending on implementation, it could lead to customers paying for a privacy service and not actually receiving privacy.

On the other side of the coin, it’s possible that an actual change in registrant might not trigger the CoR process if both gaining and losing registrants both use the same privacy service and therefore have identical Whois records.

The Council letter also warns about a possible increase in spam due to the changes:

many P/P services regularly generate new email addresses for domains in an effort to reduce spam. This procedure would no longer be possible, and registrants may be subject to unwanted messaging. Implementing the CoR for email changes that some providers do as often as every 3-5 days is not feasible.

ICANN has been aware of these issues for months. Its suggested solution is for registrars to make themselves the “Designated Agent” — a middleman permitted to authorize transfers — for all of their customers.

As we reported earlier this week, many large registrars are already doing this.

But registrars and the GNSO Council want ICANN to consider reinterpreting the new policy to exclude privacy/proxy services until a more formal GNSO policy can be created.

While the Policy Development Process that created the revised transfer rules wound up earlier this year, a separate PDP devoted to creating rules of privacy/proxy services is still active.

The Council suggests that this working group, known as PPSAI, could assume the responsibility of clearing up the mess.

In the meantime, registrars are rather keen that they will not get hit with breach notices by ICANN Compliance for failing to properly implement to what seems to be a complex policy.