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Whois privacy reforms incoming

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2015, Domain Policy

Whois privacy services will become regulated by ICANN under proposals published today, but there’s a big disagreement about whether all companies should be allowed to use them.

A working group has released the first draft of its recommendations covering privacy and proxy services, which mask the identity and contact details of domain registrants.

The report says that P/P services should be accredited by ICANN much like registrars are today.

Registrars should be obliged to disclose which such services they operate or are affilated with, presumably at the risk of their Registrar Accreditation Agreement if they do not comply, the report recommends.

A highlight of the paper is a set of proposed rules governing the release of private Whois data when it is requested by intellectual property interests.

Under the proposed rules, privacy services would not be allowed to reject such requests purely because the alleged infringement deals with the content of a web site rather than just the domain.

So the identity of a private registrant of a non-infringing domain would be vulnerable to disclosure if, for example, the domain hosted bootleg content.

Registrars would be able to charge IP owners a nominal “cost recovery” fee in order to process requests and would be able to ignore spammy automated requests that did not appear to have been manually vetted.

There’d be a new arbitration process that would kick in to resolve disputes between IP interests and P/P service providers.

The 98 pages of recommendations (pdf) were drafted by the Generic Names Supporting Organization’s Privacy & Proxy Services Accreditation Issues Working Group (PPSAI) and opened for public comment today.

There are a lot of gaps in the report. Work, it seems, still needs to be done.

For example, it acknowledges that the working group didn’t reach any conclusions about what should happen when law enforcement agencies ask for private data.

The group was dominated by registrars and IP interests. There was only one LEA representative and only one governmental representative, and they participated in a very small number of teleconferences.

There was also a sharp division on the issue of who should be able to use privacy services, with two dissenting opinions attached to the report.

One faction, led by MarkMonitor and including Facebook, Domain Tools and fake pharmacy watchdog LegitScript, said that any company that engages in e-commerce transactions should be ineligible for privacy, saying: “Transparent information helps prevent malicious activity”.

Another group, comprising a handful of non-commercial stakeholders, said that no kind of activity should prevent you from registering a domain privately, pointing to the example of persecuted political groups using web sites to raise funds.

There was a general consensus, however, than merely being a commercial entity should not alone exclude you from using a P/P service.

Currently, registrar signatories to the 2013 RAA are bound by a temporary P/P policy that is set to expire January 2017 or whenever the P/P accreditation process starts.

There are a lot of recommendations in the report, and I’ve only touched on a handful here. The public comment period closes July 7.

Google leaks 282,000 private Whois records

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2015, Domain Registrars

Google has accidentally revealed registrant contact information for 282,867 domain names that were supposed to be protected by a privacy service.

The bug reportedly affected 94% of the 305,925 domains registered via Google Apps, an eNom reseller.

The glitch was discovered by Cisco and reported to Google February 19. It has since been fixed and customers were notified yesterday.

Google acknowledged in an email to customers that the problem was caused by a “software defect in the Google Apps domain renewal system”.

It seems that anyone who acquired a domain with privacy through Google Apps since mid-2013 and has since renewed the registration will have had their identities unmasked in Whois upon renewal.

Names, addresses, emails and phone numbers were revealed.

Due to services such as DomainTools, which cache Whois records, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The information is out there for good now.

It’s a pretty major embarrassment for Google, which recently launched its own registrar.

Nominet to give nod to .uk privacy services

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2015, Domain Registries

Nominet plans to start accrediting proxy/privacy services in .uk domain names, and to make it easier to opt-out of having your full contact details published in Whois.

The proposed policy changes are outlined in a consultation opened this morning.

“We’ve never recognized privacy services,” director of policy Eleanor Bradley told DI. “If you’ve registered a .uk with a privacy service, we consider the privacy service to be the registrant of that domain name.”

“We’ve been pretending almost that they didn’t exist,” she said.

Under the proposed new regime, registrars would submit a customer’s full contact details to Nominet, but Nominet would publish the privacy service’s information in the domain’s Whois output.

Nominet, getting its hands on the customer data for the first time, would therefore start treating the end customer as the true registrant of the domain.

The company says that introducing the service would require minimal work and that it does not intend to charge registrars an additional fee.

Currently, use of privacy services in .uk is pretty low — just 0.7% of its domains, up from 0.09% a year ago.

Bradley said such services are becoming increasingly popular due to some large UK registrars beginning to offer them.

One of the reasons for low penetration is that quite a lot of privacy is already baked in to the .uk Whois database.

If you’re an individual, as opposed to a “trading” business, you’re allowed to opt-out of having any personal details other than your name published in Whois.

A second proposed reform would make that opt-out available to a broader spectrum of registrants, Nominet says.

“We’ve found over the last few years that it’s quite a hard distinction to draw,” Bradley said. “We’ve had some criticisms for our overly strict application of that.”

In future, the opt-out would be available according to these criteria:

i. The registrant must be an individual; and,
ii. The domain name must not be used:
a) to transact with customers (merchant websites);
b) to collect personal data from subjects (ie data controllers as defined in the Data Protection Act);
c) to primarily advertise or promote goods, services, or facilities.

The changes would allow an individual blogger to monetize her site with advertising without being considered a “trading” entity, according to Nominet.

But a line would be drawn where an individual collected personal data on users, such as email addresses for a mailing list, Bradley said.

Nominet says in its consultation documents:

Our continued commitment to Nominet’s role as the central register of data will enable us to properly protect registrants’ rights, release contact data where necessary under the existing exemptions, and maintain public confidence in the register. It acknowledges that some registrants may desire privacy, whilst prioritising the core function of the registry in holding accurate records.

The proposals are open for comments until June 3, which means they could potentially become policy later this year.

DreamHost hit with big breach notice

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2014, Domain Registrars

DreamHost, a web hosting provider which says it hosts over 1.3 million web sites, has been hit with a lengthy ICANN compliance notice, largely concerning alleged Whois failures.

The breach notice raises questions about the company’s popular free Whois privacy service.

Chiefly, DreamHost has failed to demonstrate that it properly investigates Whois inaccuracy complaints, as required by the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, according to ICANN.

The notice contains numerous other complaints about alleged failures to publish information about renewal fees, its directors and abuse contacts on its web site.

The domain highlighted by ICANN in relation to the Whois failure is senect.com

ICANN sent three compliance notices to DreamHost concerning a Whois inaccuracy report for the domain name and requested DreamHost demonstrate that it took reasonable steps to investigate the Whois inaccuracy claims. DreamHost’s failure to provide documentation demonstrating the reasonable steps it took to investigate and correct the alleged Whois inaccuracy is a breach of Section 3.7.8 of the RAA.

Weirdly, senect.com has been under private registration at DreamHost since the start of 2012.

ICANN seems to be asking the registrar to investigate itself in this case.

DreamHost offers private registration to its customers for free. It populates the Whois with proxy contact information and the registrant name “A Happy DreamHost Customer”.

DomainTools associates “A Happy DreamHost Customer” with over 710,000 domain names.

As an accredited registrar, DreamHost had over 822,000 gTLD domain names at the last count. According to its web site, it has over 400,000 customers.

The breach notice also demands the company immediately start including the real contact information for its privacy/proxy customers in its data escrow deposits.

ICANN has given the company until November 21 to resolve a laundry list of alleged RAA breaches, or risk losing its accreditation.

A million domains taken down by email checks

Over 800,000 domain names have been suspended since the beginning of the year as a result of Whois email verification rules in the new ICANN Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

That’s according to the Registrars Stakeholder Group, which collected suspension data from registrars representing about 75% of all registered gTLD domain names.

The actual number of suspended domains could be closer to a million.

The 2013 RAA requires registrars to verify the email addresses listed in their customers’ Whois records. If they don’t receive the verification, they have to suspend the domain.

The RrSG told the ICANN board in March that these checks were doing more harm than good and today Tucows CEO Elliot Noss presented, as promised, data to back up the claim.

“There have been over 800,000 domains suspended,” Noss said. “We have stories of healthcare sites that have gone down, community groups whose sites have gone down.”

“I think we can safely say millions of internet users,” he said. “Those are real people just trying to use the internet. They are our great unrepresented core constituency.” 

The RrSG wants to see contrasting data from law enforcement agencies and governments — which pushed hard for Whois verification — showing that the RAA requirement has had a demonstrable benefit.

Registrars asked at the Singapore meeting in March that law enforcement agencies (LEA) be put on notice that they can’t ask for more Whois controls until they’ve provided such data and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said “It shall be done by London.”

Noss implied that the majority of the 800,000 suspended names belong to innocent registrants, such as those who had simply changed email addresses since registering their names.

“What was a lovely political win that we said time and time again in discussion after discussion was impractical and would provide no benefit, has demonstrably has created harm,” Noss said.

He was received with cautious support by ICANN board members.

Chair Steve Crocker wonder aloud how many of the 800,000 suspended domains are owned by bad guys, and he noted that LEA don’t appear to gather data in the way that the registrars are demanding.

“We were subjected, all of us, to heavy-duty pressure from the law enforcement community over a long period of time. We finally said, ‘Okay, we hear you and we’ll help you get this stuff implemented,'”, he added. “That creates an obligation as far as I’m concerned on their part.”

“We’re in a — at least from a moral position — in a strong position to say, ‘You must help us understand this. Otherwise, you’re not doing your part of the job'”, he said.

Chehade also seemed to support the registrars’ position that LEA needs to justify its demands and offered to take their data and concerns to the LEA and the Governmental Advisory Committee.

“They put restrictions on us that are causing harm, according to these numbers,” he said. “Let’s take this back at them and say, hey, you ask for all these things, this is what happened.”

“If you can’t tell me what good this has done, be aware not to come back and ask for more,” he said. “I’m with you on this 100%. I’m saying let’s use the great findings you seem to have a found and well-package them in a case and I will be your advocate.”

Director Mike Silber also spoke in support of the RrSG’s position.

“My view is if what you are saying is correct, the LEA’s have blown their credibility,” he said. “They’re going to have to do a lot of work before we impose similar disproportional requirements on actors that are not proven to be bad actors.”

So what does this all mean for registrants?

I don’t think there’s any ongoing process right now to get the Whois verification requirements overturned — that would require a renegotiation of the RAA — but it does seem to mean demands from governments and police are going to have to be much more substantiated in future.

Noss attempted to link the problem to the recommendations of the Whois Expert Working Group (EWG), which propose a completely revamped, centralized Whois system with much more verification and not much to benefit registrants.

To paraphrase: if email verification causes so much harm, what harms could be caused by the EWG proposal?

The EWG was not stuffed with LEA or governments, however, so it couldn’t really be characterized as another set of unreasonable demands from the same entities.