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Could crypto solve the Whois crisis?

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

Could there be a cryptographic solution to some of the problems caused by GDPR’s impact on public Whois databases? Security experts think so.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group has proposed that hashing personal information and publishing it could help security researchers carry on using Whois to finger abusive domain names.

In a letter to ICANN, APWG recently said that such a system would allow registries and registrars to keep their customers’ data private, but would still enable researchers to identify names registered in bulk by spammers and the like.

“Redacting all registration records which were formerly publicly available has unintended and undesirable consequences to the very citizens and residents that electronic privacy legislation intends to protect,” the letter (pdf) says.

Under the proposed system, each registry or registrar would generate a private key for itself. For each Whois field containing private data, the data would be added to the key and hashed using a standard algorithm such as SHA-512.

For items such as physical addresses, all the address-related fields would be concatenated, with the key, before hashing the combined value.

The resulting hash — a long string of gibberish characters — would then be published in the public Whois instead of the [REDACTED] notice mandated by current ICANN policy.

Security researchers would then be able to identify domains belonging to the same purported registrant by searching for domains containing the same hash values.

It’s not a perfect solution. Because each registry or registrar would have their own key, the same registrant would have different hash values in different TLDs, so it would not be possible to search across TLDs.

But that may not be a huge problem, given that bad guys tend to bulk-register names in TLDs that have special offers on.

The hashing system may also be beneficial to interest groups such as trademark owners and law enforcement, which also look for registration patterns when tracking down abuse registrants.

The proposal would create implementation headaches for registries and registrars — which would actually have to build the crypto into their systems — and compliance challenges for ICANN.

The paper notes that ICANN would have to monitor its contracted parties — not all of which may necessarily be unfriendly to spammers — to make sure they’re hashing the data correctly.

Euro-Whois advice still as clear as mud

Kevin Murphy, July 6, 2018, Domain Policy

European privacy chiefs have again weighed in to the ongoing debate about GDPR and Whois, offering another thin batch of vague advice to ICANN.

The European Data Protection Board, in its latest missive (pdf), fails to provide much of the granular “clarity” ICANN has been looking for, in my view.

It does offer a few pieces of specific guidance, but it seems to me that the general gist of the letter from EDPB chair Andrea Jelinek to ICANN CEO Goran Marby is basically: “You’re on your own buddy.”

If the question ICANN asked was “How can we comply with GDPR?” the answer, again, appears to be generally: “By complying with GDPR.”

To make matters worse, Jelinek signs off with a note implying that the EDPB now thinks that it has given ICANN all the advice it needs to run off and create a GDPR-compliant accreditation system for legitimate access to private Whois data.

The EDPB is the body that replaced the Article 29 Working Party after GDPR came into effect in May. It’s made up of the data protection authorities of all the EU member states.

On the accreditation discussion — which aims to give the likes of trademark owners and security researchers access to Whois data — the clearest piece of advice in the letter is arguably:

the personal data processed in the context of WHOIS can be made available to third parties who have a legitimate interest in having access to the data, provided that appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure that the disclosure is proportionate and limited to that which is necessary and the other requirements of GDPR are met, including the provision of clear information to data subjects.

That’s a fairly straightforward statement that ICANN is fine to go ahead with the creation of an accreditation model for third parties, just as long as it’s quite tightly regulated.

But like so much of its advice, it contains an unhelpful nested reference to GDPR compliance.

The letter goes on to say that logging Whois queries should be part of these controls, but that care should be taken not to tip off registrants being investigated by law enforcement.

But it makes no effort to answer Marby’s questions (pdf) about who these legit third-parties might be and how ICANN might go about identifying them, which is probably the most important outstanding issue right now.

Jelinek also addresses ICANN’s lawsuit against Tucows’ German subsidiary EPAG, and I have to disagree with interpretations of its position published elsewhere.

The Register’s Kieren McCarthy, my Chuckle Brother from another Chuckle Mother, reckons the EDPB has torpedoed the lawsuit by “stating clearly that it cannot force people to provide additional ‘admin’ and ‘technical’ contacts for a given domain name”.

Under my reading, what it actually states is that registrants should be able to either use their own contact data, or anonymized contact information identifying a third party, in these records.

The EDPB clearly anticipates that admin and technical contacts can continue to exist, as long as they contain non-personal contact information such as “admin@example.com”, rather than “kevin@example.com”.

That’s considerably more in line with ICANN’s position than that of Tucows, which wants to stop collecting that data altogether.

One area where EDPB does in fact shoot down ICANN’s new Whois policy is when it comes to data retention.

The current ICANN contracts make registrars retain data for two years, but the EDPB notes that ICANN does not explain why or where that number comes from (I hear it was “pulled out of somebody’s ass”).

The EDPB says that ICANN needs to “re-evaluate the proposed data retention period of two years and to explicitly justify and document why it is necessary”.

Finally, the EDPB weighs in on the issue of Whois records for “legal persons” (as opposed to “natural persons”). It turns out their Whois records are not immune to GDPR either.

If a company lists John Smith and john.smith@example.com in its Whois records, that’s personal data on Mr Smith and therefore falls under GDPR, the letter says.

That should provide a strong incentive for registries and registrars to stop publishing potentially personal fields, if they’re still doing so.

How ICANN thinks YOU could get full Whois access

Kevin Murphy, June 20, 2018, Domain Policy

With blanket public Whois access now firmly a thing of the past due to GDPR, ICANN has set the ball rolling on an accreditation system that would reopen the data doors to certain select parties.

The org yesterday published a high-level framework document for a “Unified Access Model” that could give Whois access to approved users such as police, lawyers, and even common registrants.

It contains many elements that are sure to be controversial, such as paying fees for Whois access, the right of governments to decide who gets approved, and ICANN’s right to see every single Whois query carried out under the program.

It’s basically ICANN’s attempt to frame the conversation about Whois access, outlining what it expects from community members such as registries and registrars, governments and others.

It outlines a future in which multiple “Authenticating Bodies” would hand out credentials (either directly or via referral to a central authority) to parties they deem eligible for full Whois access.

These Authenticating Bodies could include entities such as WIPO or the Trademark Clearinghouse for trademark lawyers and Interpol or Europol for law enforcement agencies.

Once suitably credentialed, Whois users would either get unexpurgated Whois access or access to only fields appropriate to their stated purpose. That’s one of many questions still open for discussion.

There could be fees levied at various stages of the process, but ICANN says there should be a study of the financial implications of the model before a decision is made.

Whois users would have to agree to a code of conduct specific to their role (cop, lawyer, registrant, etc) that would limit how they could use the data they acquire.

Additionally, registrars and registries would have to log every single Whois query and hand those logs over to ICANN for compliance and audit purposes. ICANN said:

based on initial discussions with members of the Article 29 Working Party, ICANN proposes that registry operators and registrars would be required to maintain audit logs of domain name queries for non-public WHOIS data, unless logging a particular entry is contrary to a relevant court order. The logs would be available to ICANN org for audit/compliance purposes, relevant data protection authorities, the registrant, or pursuant to a court order.

On the higher-level question of who should be given the keys to the new gates Whois — it’s calling them “Eligible User Groups” — ICANN wants to outsource the difficult decisions to either governments or, as a backstop, the ICANN community.

The proposal says: “Eligible User Groups might include intellectual property rights holders, law enforcement authorities, operational security researchers, and individual registrants.”

It wants the European Economic Area members of its Governmental Advisory Committee, and then the GAC as a whole, to “identify or facilitate identification of broad categories” of eligible groups.

ICANN’s next public meeting, ICANN 62, kicks off in Panama at the weekend, so the GAC’s next formal communique, which could address this issue, is about a week away.

ICANN also wants the GAC to help it identify potential Authenticating Bodies that would hand out credentials.

But the GAC, in its most recent communique, has already declined such a role, saying in March that it “does not envision an operational role in designing and implementing the proposed accreditation programs”.

If it sticks with that position, ICANN says it will turn to the community to have this difficult conversation.

It notes specifically the informal working group that is currently developing a “community” Accreditation & Access Model For Non-Public WHOIS Data.

This group is fairly controversial as it is perceived by some, fairly I think, as being dominated by intellectual property interests.

The group’s draft model is already in version 1.6 (pdf), and at 47 pages is much more detailed than ICANN’s proposal, but its low-traffic mailing list has almost no contracted parties on board and the IP guys are very decidedly holding the pen.

There’s also a separate draft, the Palage Differentiated Registrant Data Access Model (or “Philly Special”) (Word doc), written by consultant Michael Palage, which has received even less public discussion.

ICANN’s proposal alludes to these drafts, but it does not formally endorse either as some had feared. It does, however, provide a table (pdf) comparing its own model to the other two.

What do not get a mention are the access models already being implemented by individual registrars.

Notably, Tucows is ready to launch TieredAccess.com, a portal for would-be Whois users to obtain credentials to view Tucows-managed Whois records.

This system grants varying levels of access to “law enforcement, commercial litigation interests, and security researchers”, with law enforcement given the highest level of access, Tucows explained in a blog post yesterday.

That policy is based on the GDPR principle of “data minimization”, which is the key reason it’s currently embroiled in an ICANN lawsuit (unrelated to accreditation) in Germany.

Anyway, now that ICANN has published its own starting point proposal, it is now expected that the community will start to discuss the draft in a more formal ICANN setting. There are several sessions devoted to GDPR and Whois in Panama.

ICANN also expects to take the proposal to the European Data Protection Board, the EU committee of data protection authorities that replaced the Article 29 Working Party when GDPR kicked in last month.

However, in order for any of this to become binding on registries and registrars it will have to be baked into their contracts, which will mean it going through the regular ICANN policy development process, and it’s still not clear how much enthusiasm there is for that step happening soon.

In GDPR case, ICANN ready to fight Tucows to the bitter end

Kevin Murphy, June 14, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has appealed its recent court defeat as it attempts to force a Tucows subsidiary to carry on collecting full Whois data from customers.

The org said yesterday that it is taking its lawsuit against Germany-based EPAG to a higher court and has asked it to bounce the case up to the European Court of Justice, as the first test case of the new General Data Protection Regulation.

In its appeal, an English translation (pdf) of which has been published, ICANN argues that the Higher Regional Court of Cologne must provide an interpretation of GDPR in order to rule on its request for an injunction.

And if it does, ICANN says, then it is obliged by the GDPR itself to refer that question to the ECJ, Europe’s highest judicial authority.

The case concerns Tucows’ refusal to carry on collecting contact information about the administrative and technical contacts for each domain name it sells, which it is contractually obliged to do under ICANN’s Whois policy.

These are the Admin-C and Tech-C fields that complement the registrant’s own contact information, which Tucows is of course still collecting.

Tucows says that these extra fields are unnecessary, and that GDPR demands it minimize the amount of data it collects to only that which it strictly needs to execute the registration contact.

It also argues that, if the Admin-C and Tech-C are third parties, it has no business collecting any data on them at all.

According to Tucows legal filings, more than half of its 10 million domains have identical data for all three contacts, and in more than three quarters of cases the registrant and Admin-C are identical.

In its appeal, ICANN argues that the data is “crucial for the objectives of a secure domain name system, including but not limited to the legitimate purposes of consumer protection,
investigation of cybercrime, DNS abuse and intellectual property protection and law enforcement needs”.

ICANN uses Tucows’ own numbers against it, pointing out that if Tucow has 7.5 million domains with shared registrant and Admin-C data, it therefore has 2.5 million domains where the Admin-C is a different person or entity, proving the utility of these records.

It says that registrars must continue to collect the disputed data, at the very least if it has secured consent from the third parties named.

ICANN says that nothing in the Whois policy requires personal data to be collected on “natural persons” — Admin-C and Tech-C could quite easily be legal persons — therefore there is no direct clash with GDPR, which only covers natural persons.

Its appeal, in translation, reads: “the GDPR is irrelevant if no data about natural persons are collected. In this respect, the Defendant is contractually obliged to collect such data, and failure to do so violates its contract with the Applicant.”

It goes on to argue that even if the registrant chooses to provide natural-person data, that’s still perfectly fine as a “legitimate purpose” under GDPR.

ICANN was handed a blow last month after a Bonn-based court refused to give it an injunction obliging EPAG (and, by inference, all registrars) to continue collecting Admin-C and Tech-C.

The lower court had said that registrants would be able to continue to voluntarily provide Admin-C and Tech-C, but ICANN’s appeal points out that this is not true as EPAG is no longer requesting or collecting this data.

In ICANN’s estimation, the lower court declined to comment on the GDPR implications of its decision.

It says the appeals court, referred to in translation as the “Senate”, cannot avoid interpreting GDPR if it has any hope of ruling on the injunction request.

Given the lack of GDPR case law — the regulation has only been in effect for a few weeks — ICANN reckons the German court is obliged by GDPR itself to kick the can up to the ECJ.

It says: “If the Senate is therefore convinced that the outcome of this procedure depends on the interpretation of certain provisions of the GDPR, the Senate must refer these possible questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling”.

It adds that should a referral happen it should happen under the ECJ’s “expedited” procedures.

An ECJ ruling has been in ICANN’s sights for some time; late last year CEO Goran Marby was pointing out that a decision from the EU’s top court would probably be the only way full legal clarity on GDPR’s intersection with Whois could be obtained.

It should be pointed out of course that this case is limited to the data collection issue.

The far, far trickier issue of when this data should be released to people who believe they have a legitimate purpose to see it — think: trademark guys — isn’t even up for discussion in the courts.

It will be, of course. Give it time.

All of ICANN’s legal filings, in the original German and unofficial translation, can be found here.

Atallah encourages domainers to get involved in ICANN

Kevin Murphy, June 7, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN Global Domains Division chief Akram Atallah today encouraged domain investors to participate more in the ICANN community.

“Domain investors’ voices need to be heard in ICANN,” he said during brief remarks opening NamesCon Europe here in Valencia this morning.

“Your voices are as important as everyone else’s and should be heard,” he said.

He noted to the largely European crowd here that ICANN has a public meeting coming up in Barcelona toward the end of the year.

The call came within the context of comments that focused almost exclusively on GDPR and Whois.

Atallah said that the absence of Whois would make it difficult to track down bad guys and harder for the average person to ensure that the information they get online comes from a reputable source.

“Not everything on the internet is true,” he said, to an faux-incredulous “WHAT?!?” from a member of the audience. “You need to know who is behind this information.”

He said that ICANN hopes to keep Whois as transparent as possible, and played up the fact that most community members are now in agreement that a tiered access system seems like the best way forward, which he called a “major shift from 12 months ago, when the community could not agree on anything”.

He added that now that the Article 29 Working Party has been replaced by the European Data Protection Board, it could help ICANN figure out how to proceed on GDPR compliance efforts.

“I think we’ll get more clarity,” he said.

Disclosure: I’m at NamesCon on my own dime, but with a complementary complemintary complimentary press pass.