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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.

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.

ICANN confirms domain privacy is for all

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2016, Domain Policy

Commercial entities will not be excluded from buying domain privacy services, ICANN’s GNSO Council has confirmed.

The Council last night voted unanimously to approve a set of recommendations that would make it compulsory for privacy and proxy services to be accredited by ICANN for the first time.

The recommendations govern among other things how privacy services are expected to behave when they receive notices of trademark or copyright infringement.

But missing is a proposal that would have prevented the use of privacy for “transactional” web sites, something which caused a great deal of controversy last year.

The newly adopted recommendations clearly state that nobody is to be excluded from privacy on these grounds.

The Council voted to adopt the final, 93-page report of the Privacy and Proxy Services Accreditation Issues (pdf) working group, which states:

Fundamentally, P/P services should remain available to registrants irrespective of their status as commercial or non-commercial organizations or as individuals. Further, P/P registrations should not be limited to private individuals who use their domains for non-commercial purposes.

The minority view that web sites that process financial transactions should not be able to use privacy came from intellectual property, anti-abuse and law enforcement community members.

However, opponents said it would infringe the privacy rights of home business owners, bloggers, political activists and others.

It could even lead to vicious “doxing”-related crimes, such as “swatting”, where idiots call in fake violent crime reports against rivals’ home addresses, some said.

It also turned out, as we revealed last November, that 55% of US presidential candidates operate transactional web sites that use privacy on their domains.

Two separate registrar initiatives, one backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, started letter-writing campaigns that resulted in over 20,000 comments being received on the the PPSAI’s initial report last July.

Those comments are acknowledged in the PPSAI final report that the GNSO Council just approved.

The adopted recommendations (which I’ll get into in a separate article) still have to be approved by the ICANN board of directors and have to undergo an implementation process that puts the rather broad policies into concrete processes and procedures.

Most US presidential hopefuls use Whois privacy despite begging for cash

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2015, Domain Policy

More than half of the remaining US presidential candidates could have risked losing their official campaign web sites under proposed Whois privacy rules.

Today I carried out Whois queries on all 18 candidates to discover that 10, or over 55%, use a Whois privacy service.

Of the three remaining Democrat candidates, only Bernie Sanders uses privacy. Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton do not.

Here’s a table of the Republican candidates and their chosen privacy services. N/A means their campaigns are using what appears to be genuine contact information.

CandidateDomainPrivacy Service
Ben Carsonbencarson.comN/A
Bobby Jindalbobbyjindal.comN/A
Carly Fiorinacarlyforpresident.comDreamHost.com
Chris Christiechrischristie.comDomainDiscreet.com
Donald Trumpdonaldjtrump.comN/A
George Patakigeorgepataki.comDomainsByProxy.com
Jeb Bushjeb2016.comContactPrivacy.com
Jim Gilmoregilmoreforamerica.comN/A
John Kasichjohnkasich.comDomainPrivacyGroup.com
Lindsey Grahamlindseygraham.comN/A
Marco Rubiomarcorubio.comDomainsByProxy.com
Mike Huckabeemikehuckabee.comDomainsByProxy.com
Rand Paulrandpaul.comWhoisPrivacyServices.com.au
Rick Santorumricksantorum.comN/A
Ted Cruztedcruz.orgDomainsByProxy.com

The results are interesting because rules under discussion at ICANN earlier this year — which are apparently still on the table in other international fora — would have banned the use of privacy services for commercial web sites that allow financial transactions.

All 18 candidates — even Trump — solicit donations on their campaign sites, and many sell T-shirts, bumper stickers and such.

Back in May, a minority of ICANN’s Privacy & Proxy Services Accreditation Issues Working Group (PPSAI) were in favor of banning privacy for such registrants.

The rationale was that criminals, such as those selling counterfeit drugs, should not be allowed to mask their Whois details.

Judging by a working group report at the ICANN meeting in Dublin last month, the proposed new rules have been killed off by the PPSAI after a deluge of comments — around 22,000 — that were solicited by registrars and civil rights groups.

However, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, at the exact same time as the PPSAI was revealing its change of heart, the US government was pushing for virtually identical policy at a meeting of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The EFF says the proposed OECD Recommendation “would require domain name registration information to be made publicly available for websites that are promoting or engaged in commercial transactions with consumers.”

It’s remarkable that the US government is apparently pushing for rules that are being violated by most of its own hopeful commanders-in-chief as part of the democratic process.

Clearly, fake pharmacies are not the only class of crook to find value in privacy.

ICANN just gave a company a new gTLD for free

Kevin Murphy, September 10, 2015, Domain Policy

The Tor Project Inc, a Massachusetts non-profit software maker, just got a new gTLD reserved for its own exclusive use, by ICANN, for free.

Tor did this without engaging in the ICANN new gTLD program, paying any ICANN application fees, or following any of the rules in the ICANN Applicant Guidebook.

It basically circumvented the entire ICANN process, and it only took six months from asking.

Neat trick, right?

Tor develops the software that creates the Tor “anonymity network” used by people who wish to obfuscate their internet usage (legal or otherwise) by routing their traffic via a series of proxies or relays.

The free software, which plugs into browsers, uses meaningless, hashed “.onion” domains because the routing method is known as “onion routing”.

IANA, an ICANN department, last night placed .onion on its list of Special Use Domains, meaning it cannot be delegated to the DNS.

If anyone were to apply for it today — assuming that were possible — they’d be out of luck. It seems .onion now has the same protected status as .example and .localhost.

The reservation was made at the instruction of the Internet Engineering Task Force, which published a new Internet Draft reserving the .onion gTLD for use with Tor.

An Internet Draft is a “work in progress” standards track document with a six-month shelf life, not yet a finalized Request For Comments (RFC).

This one was written by engineers from Tor and Facebook.

The Internet Engineering Steering Group, the IETF’s coordinating body, approved the draft last week.

Of the 13 IESG members who voted on the document, the first draft of which was published six months ago, five voted “Yes”, seven offered “No Objection” and only one abstained.

The abstainer, Barry Leiba, standards guru at Huawei Technologies, wrote:

I believe the IETF shouldn’t be involved with registering special-use TLDs for things that were used outside of IETF protocols, and should not be wading into territory that belongs to ICANN. I know there are a bunch of other such TLDs that people/organizations would have us snag for them, and I very much want to avoid doing a batch of others.

That said, I well understand the deployed code involved and the importance of keeping things working in this case, and I don’t want to stand in the way. So I’m standing aside with an “Abstain” ballot.

The logic behind the reservation is that if ICANN were to delegate .onion to somebody else (for example, The Onion) there would be a risk that the improved privacy offered by Tor would be compromised.

Voting in favor of the draft, Cisco engineer Alissa Cooper wrote:

Registering this name seems warranted in light of the potential security impact. We need to make our processes work for the Internet, not vice versa.

Another affirmative vote came from Oracle engineer Ben Campbell. He wrote:

This one took some soul searching. But I think the arguments have been made, and that on the whole this registration does more good than harm.

A number of IESG members suggested that the IETF should revisit and possibly amend the RFC in which it originally granted itself the power to reserve gTLDs.

That’s RFC6761, entitled “Special-Use Domain Names”, which dates to February 2013.

RFC6761 lays out a seven-point test that a string must pass before it can be considered “special use” and thereby reserved.

The tests cover whether humans, applications and various types of DNS software are expected to handle the string differently to a regular TLD.

The RFC also notes:

The IETF has responsibility for specifying how the DNS protocol works, and ICANN is responsible for allocating the names made possible by that DNS protocol… Reservation of a Special-Use Domain Name is not a mechanism for circumventing normal domain name registration processes.

I think reasonable people could disagree on whether that’s what has just happened in the case of .onion.

Indeed, there was some discussion on the IETF’s “dnsop” working group mailing list about whether Tor was “squatting” .onion, and whether it was appropriate to reserve its chosen TLD string.

I wonder what kind of precedent this could set.

The Tor Project Inc is a Massachusetts non-profit company. It’s primarily funded by US government grants, according to its 2013 financial statements, the most recent available. It doesn’t sell .onion domains — they’re auto-generated by the software.

Part of the argument in favor of allowing the new Internet Draft is that .onion substantially pre-dates the creation of RFC6761 — it’s not an attempt to game the RFC.

Why wouldn’t that same argument apply to, for example, alternate root operator Name.Space, which has been offering hundreds of pseudo-gTLDs since 1996?

Name.Space could argue that its strings pre-date .onion by eight years, and that the security of its registrants and users could be compromised if ICANN were to delegate them to the DNS.

What about NameCoin, another alternate root provider? It also pre-dates RFC6761 and, like Tor, uses browser software to work around the DNS.

I don’t know enough about the IETF’s processes, to be honest, to say whether it would be forced to apply its .onion logic to these other namespaces. But it’s an interesting question.

And as somebody who has spent the last five years immersed in the minutiae of the rules ICANN has created to govern the allocation of words, it’s jarring to see those rules circumnavigated so completely.