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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.

DomainTools scraps apps and APIs in war on spam

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2018, Domain Services

DomainTools is to scrap at least five of its services as it tries to crack down spam.

It’s getting rids of its mobile apps, its APIs, and is to stop showing registrants’ personal information to unauthenticated users.

CEO Tim Chen told us in an email at the weekend:

The Android app is no longer supported.

The iOS app will no longer be supported after February 20th.

The Developer API is no longer supported.

On February 20th, the Bulk Parsed Whois tool available to Personal Members will no longer be supported.

On February 20th, our production Whois API will no longer be available to individual membership levels, an Enterprise relationships will be required.

It’s all part of an effort to make sure DomainTools services are not being abused by spammers, which has lead to a dispute with GoDaddy over bulk access to its registrants’ Whois data.

The longstanding problem of new registrants getting spammed with calls and emails offering web hosting and such has escalated over the last few years. Domain Name Wire detailed the scale of the abuse registrants can experience in a post last week.

While to my knowledge nobody has directly accused DomainTools of facilitating such abuse, the scrapped services are the ones that would be most useful to these spammers.

The company is also going to scale back what guest users can see when they do a Whois lookup, and is to make automated scraping of Whois records more difficult for paying members.

In a blog post, Chen wrote last week:

As of today, unauthenticated users of the DomainTools Whois Lookup tool will not see personally identifiable information for the registrant parsed out in the results, and will be required to submit a CAPTCHA to see the full raw domain name Whois record. Phone numbers in the parsed results have been replaced with image files, much the same way emails have always been rendered

As well as hoping to ease relations with GoDaddy — the source of a very heavy chunk of DomainTools’ data — the moves are also part of the company’s strategy for dealing with the incoming General Data Protection Regulation.

This is the EU law that gives registrants more control over the privacy of their personal data.

Chen told us earlier this month that DomainTools is keen to ensure its enterprise-level suite of security products, which he said are vital for security and intellectual property investigations, continue to operatie under the new regime.

About 80% of DomainTools’ revenue comes from its enterprise-level customers, over 500 companies.

Three ways ICANN could gut Whois

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has published three possible models of how Whois could be altered beyond recognition after European privacy law kicks in this May.

Under each model, casual Whois users would no longer have access to the wealth of contact information they do under the current system.

There may also be a new certification program that would grant access to full Whois records to law enforcement, consumer protection agencies and intellectual property interests.

The three models are each intended to address the General Data Protection Regulation, EU law that could see companies fined millions if they fail to protect the personal data of European citizens.

While GDPR affects all data collection on private citizens, for the domain name industry it’s particularly relevant to Whois, where privacy has always been an afterthought.

The three ICANN models, which are now subject to a short public comment period, differ from each other in three key areas: who has their privacy protected, which fields appear in public Whois by default, and how third parties such as law enforcement access the full records.

Model 1 is the most similar to the current system, allowing for the publication of the most data.

Under this model the name and postal address of the registrant would continue to be displayed in the public Whois databases.

Their email address and phone number would be protected, but the email and phone of the administrative and technical contacts — often the same person as the registrant — would be published.

If the registrant were a legal entity, rather than a person, all data fields would continue to be displayed as normal.

The other two models call for more restricted, or at least different, public output.

Under Model 2, the email addresses of the administrative and technical contacts would be published, but all other contact information, including the name of the registrant, would be redacted.

Model 3 proposes a crazy-sounding system whereby everything would be published unless the registrar/registry decided, on a domain-by-domain basis, that the field contained personal information.

This would require manual vetting of each Whois record and is likely to gather no support from the industry.

The three models also differ in how third parties with legitimate interests would access full Whois records.

Model 1 proposes a system similar to how zone files are published via ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service.

Under this model, users would self-certify that they have a legit right to the data (if they’re a cop or an IP lawyer, for example) and it would be up to the registry or registrar to approve or decline their request.

Model 2 envisages a more structured, formal, centralized system of certification for Whois users, developed with the Governmental Advisory Committee and presumably administered by ICANN.

Model 3 would require Whois users to supply a subpoena or court order in order to access records, which is sure to make it unpopular among the IP lobby and governments.

Each of the three models also differs in terms of the circumstances under which privacy is provided.

The models range from protecting records only when the registrant, registry, registrar or any other entity involved in the data processing has a presence in the European Economic Area to protecting records of all registrants everywhere regardless of whether they’re a person or a company.

Each model has different data retention policies, ranging from six month to two years after a registration expires.

None of the three models screw with registrars’ ability to pass data to thick-Whois registries, nor to their data escrow providers.

ICANN said it’s created these models based on the legal analyses it commissioned from the Hamilton law firm, as well as submissions from community members.

One such submission, penned by the German trade associated Eco, has received broad industry support.

It would provide blanket protection to all registrants regardless of legal status or location, and would see all personally identifiable information stripped from public Whois output.

Upon carrying out a Whois query, users would see only information about the domain, not the registrant.

There would be an option to request more information, but this would be limited to an anonymized email address or web form for most users.

Special users, such as validated law enforcement or IP interests, would be able to access the full records via a new, centralized Trusted Data Clearinghouse, which ICANN would presumably be responsible for setting up.

It’s most similar to ICANN’s Model 2.

It has been signed off by registries and registrars together responsible for the majority of the internet’s domain registrations: Afilias, dotBERLIN, CentralNic, Donuts, Neustar, Nominet, Public Interest Registry (PIR), Verisign, 1&1, Arsys, Blacknight, GoDaddy, Strato/Cronon, Tucows and United Domains.

ICANN said in a blog post that its three models are now open for public comment until January 29.

If you have strong opinions on any of the proposals, it might be a good idea to get them in as soon as possible, because ICANN plans to identify one of the models as the basis for the official model within 48 hours of the comment period closing.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has seriously limited DomainTools’ access to its customers’ Whois records, pissing off DomainTools.

DomainTools CEO Tim Chen this week complained to DI that its access to Whois has been throttled back significantly in recent months, making it very difficult to keep its massive database of domain information up to date.

Chen said that DomainTools is currently only able to access GoDaddy’s Whois over port 43 at about 2% of the rate it had previously.

He said that this has been going on for about six months and that the market-leading registrar has been unresponsive to its requests to have previous levels restored.

“By throttling access to the data by 98% they’re defeating the ability of security practitioners to get data on GoDaddy domains,” Chen said. “It’s particularly troublesome because they [GoDaddy] are such a big part of DNS.”

“We have customers who say the quality of GoDaddy data is just degrading across the board, either through direct look-ups or in some of the DomainTools products themselves,” he said.

DomainTools customers include security professionals trying to hunt down the source of attacks and intellectual property interests trying to locate pirates and cybersquatters.

GoDaddy today confirmed to DI that it has been throttling DomainTools’ Whois access, and said that it’s part of ongoing anti-spam measures.

In recent years there’s been an increase in the amount of spam — usually related to web design, hosting, and SEO — sent to recent domain registrants using email addresses harvested from new Whois records.

GoDaddy, as the market-share leader in retail domain sales, takes a tonne of flak from customers who, unaware of standard Whois practice, think the company is selling their personal information to spammers.

This kind of Twitter exchange is fairly common on GoDaddy’s feed:

While GoDaddy is not saying that DomainTools is directly responsible for this kind of activity, throttling its port 43 traffic is one way the company is trying to counter the problem, VP of policy James Bladel told DI tonight.

“Companies like [DomainTools] present a challenge,” he said. “While we may know these folks, we don’t know who their customers are.”

But that’s just a part of the issue. GoDaddy was also concerned about the amount of resources DomainTools was consuming, and its own future legal responsibilities under the European Union’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.

“When [Chen] says they’re down to a fraction or a percentage of what they had previously, well what they had previously was they were updating and archiving Whois almost in real time,” Bladel said. “And that’s not going to fly.”

“That is not only, we feel, not congruent with our responsibilities to our customers’ data, but it’s also, later on down the road, exactly the kind of thing that GDPR and other regulations are designed to stop,” he said.

GDPR is the EU law that, when it fully kicks in in May, gives European citizens much more rights over the sharing and processing of their private data.

Bladel added that DomainTools is still getting more Whois access than other parties using port 43.

“They have a level of access that is much, much higher than what they would normally have as a registrar,” he said, “but much lower than I think they want, because they want to effectively download and keep current the entirety of the Whois database.”

I’m not getting a sense from GoDaddy that it’s likely to backtrack on its changes.

Indeed, the company also today announced that it from January 25 it will start to “mask” key elements of Whois records when queried over port 43.

GoDaddy told high-value customers such as domainers today that port 43 queries will no longer return the registrant’s first name, last name, email address or phone number.

Bulk Whois users such as registrars (and, I assume, DomainTools) that have been white-listed via the “GoDaddy Port43 Process” will continue to receive full records.

Its web-based Whois, which includes a CAPTCHA gateway to prevent scraping, will continue to function as normal.

Bladel said that these changes are NOT related to GDPR, nor to the fact that ICANN said a couple months back that it would not enforce compliance with Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, subject to certain conditions.

Big changes at DomainTools as privacy law looms

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2018, Domain Services

Regular users of DomainTools should expect significant changes to their service, possibly unwelcome, as the impact of incoming European Union privacy law begins to be felt.

Professional users such as domain investors are most likely to be impacted by the changes.

The company hopes to announce how its services will be rejiggered to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation in the next few weeks, probably in February, but CEO Tim Chen spoke to DI yesterday in general terms about the law’s possible impact.

“There will be changes to the levels of service we offer currently, especially to any users of DomainTools that are not enterprises,” Chen said.

GDPR governs how personal data on EU citizens is captured, shared and processed. It deals with issues such as customer consent, the length of time such data may be stored, and the purposes for which it may be processed.

Given that DomainTools’ entire business model is based on capturing domain registrants’ contact information without their explicit consent, then storing, processing and sharing that data indefinitely, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the new law represents a possibly existential threat.

But while Chen says he’s “very concerned” about GDPR, he expects the use cases of his enterprise customers to be protected.

DomainTools no longer considers itself a Whois company, Chen said, it’s a security services company now. Only about 20% of its revenue now comes from the $99-a-month customers who pay to access services such as reverse Whois and historical Whois queries.

The rest comes from the 500-odd enterprise customers it has, which use the company’s data for purposes such as tracking down network abuse and intellectual property theft.

DomainTools is very much aligned here with the governments and IP lawyers that are pressing ICANN and European data protection authorities to come up with a way Whois data can still be made available for these “legitimate purposes”.

“We’re very focused on our most-important goal of making sure the cyber security and network security use cases for Whois data are represented in the final discussions on how this legislation is really going to land,” he said.

“There needs to be some level of access that is retained for uses that are very consistent with protecting the very constituents that this legislation is trying to protect from a privacy perspective,” he said.

The two big issues pressing on Chen’s mind from a GDPR perspective are the ability of the company to continue to aggregate Whois records from hundreds of TLDs and thousands of registrars, and its ability to continue to provide historical, archived Whois records — the company’s most-popular product after vanilla Whois..

These are both critical for customers responding to security issues or trying to hunt down serial cybersquatters and copyright infringers, Chen said.

“[Customers are] very concerned, because their ability to use this data as part of their incident response is critical, and the removal of the data from that process really does injure their ability to do their jobs,” he said.

How far these use cases will be protected under GDPR is still an open question, one largely to be determined by European DPAs, and DomainTools, like ICANN the rest of the domain industry, is still largely in discussion mode.

“Part of what we need to help DPAs understand is: how long is long enough?” Chen said. “Answering how long this data can be archived is very important.”

ICANN was recently advised by its lawyers to take its case for maintaining Whois in as recognizable form as possible to the DPAs and other European privacy bodies.

And governments, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, recently urged ICANN to continue to permit Whois access for “legitimate purposes”.

DomainTools is in a different position to most of the rest of the industry. In terms of its core service, it’s not a contracted party with ICANN, so perhaps will have to rely on hoping whatever the registries and registrars work out will also apply to its own offerings.

It’s also different in that it has no direct customer relationship with the registrants whose data it processes, nor does it have a contractual relationship with the companies that do have these customer relationships.

This could make the issue of consent — the right of registrant to have a say in how their data is processed and when it is deleted — tricky.

“We’re not in a position to get consent from domain owners to do what we do,” Chen said. “I think where we need to be more thoughtful is whether DomainTools needs to have a process where people can opt out of having their data processed.”

“When I think about consent, it’s not on the way in, because we just don’t have a way to do that, it’s allowing a way out… a mechanism where people can object to their data being processed,” he said.

How DomainTools’ non-enterprise customers and users will be affected should become clear when the company outlines its plans in the coming weeks.

But Chen suggested that most casual users should not see too much impact.

“The ability of anyone who has an interest in using Whois data, who needs it every now and then, for looking up a Whois record of a domain because they want to buy it as a domain investor for example, that should still be very possible after GDPR,” he said.

“I don’t think GDPR is aimed at individual, one-at-a-time use cases for data, I think it’s aimed at scalable abuse of the data for bad purposes,” he said.

“If you’re running a business in domain names and you need to get Whois at significant scale, and you need to evaluate that many domains for some reason, that’s where the impact may be,” he said.

Disclosure: I share a complimentary DomainTools account with several other domain industry bloggers.