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How Whois could survive new EU privacy law

Kevin Murphy, December 29, 2017, Domain Policy

Reports of the death of Whois may have been greatly exaggerated.

Lawyers for ICANN reckon the current public system “could continue to exist in some form” after new European Union privacy laws kick in next May, according to advice published (hurriedly, judging by the typos towards the end) shortly before Christmas.

Hamilton, the Swedish law firm hired by ICANN to probe the impact of the General Data Protection Regulation, seems to be mellowing on its recommendation that Whois access be permanently “layered” according to who wants to access registration records.

Now, it’s saying that layered Whois access could merely be a “temporary solution” to protect the industry from fines and litigation until ICANN negotiates a permanent peace treaty with EU privacy regulators that would have less impact on current Whois users.

This opinion came in the third of three memorandums from Hamilton, published by ICANN last week. You can read it here (pdf).

With the first two memos strongly hinting that layered access would be the most appropriate way forward, the third points out the huge, possibly insurmountable burden this would place on registrars, registries, law enforcement agencies, the courts, IP lawyers, and others.

It instead suggests that layered access be temporary, with ICANN taking the lead in arranging a longer-term understanding with the EU.

The latest Hamilton memo seems to have taken on board comments from registries and registrars, intellectual property lawyers and domain investors, none of which are particularly enthusiastic about GDPR and the lack of clarity surrounding its impacts.

GDPR is an EU-wide law that gives much stronger protection to the personal data of private citizens.

Companies that process such data are kept on a much tighter leash and could face millions of euros of fines if they use the data for purposes their customers have not consented to or without a good enough reason.

It’s not a specifically intended to regulate Whois — indeed, its conflict with longstanding practice and ICANN rules seems to have been an afterthought — but Whois is the place the domain industry is most likely to find itself breaking the law.

It seems to be generally agreed that the current system of open, public access to all fields in all Whois records in all gTLDs would not be compliant with GDPR without some significant changes.

It also seems to be generally agreed that the data can be hugely useful for purposes such as police investigations, trademark enforcement and the domain secondary market.

The idea that layered access — where different sets of folks get access to different sets of data based on their legitimate needs — might be a solution has therefore gained some support.

Hamilton notes:

Given the limited time remaining until the GDPR enters into effect, we believe that the best chance of continuing to provide the Whois services and still be compliant with the GDPR will be to implement an interim solution based on an layered access model that would ensure continued processing of Whois data for some limited purposes.

The problem with this solution, as Hamilton now notes, is that it could be hugely impractical.

such a model would require the registrars to perform an assessment of interests in accordance with Article 6.1(f) GDPR on an individual case-by-case basis each time a request for access is made. This would put a significant organizational and administrative pressure on the registrars and also require them to obtain and maintain the competence required to make such assessments in order to deliver the requested data in a reasonably timely manner. In our opinion, public access to (limited) Whois data would therefore be of preference and necessary to fulfill the above purposes in a practical and efficient way.

And, Hamilton says, a scenario in which all cops had access to all Whois data would not necessarily be GDPR-compliant. Police may have to right to access the data, but they’d have to request it on a case-by-case basis.

Registrars — or even the courts — would have to make the decision as to whether each request was legit.

It would get even more complex for registrars when the Whois requester was an IP lawyer, as they’d have to check whether it was appropriate to disclose the personal data to both the lawyer and her client, the memo says.

For registrars, the largely nominal cost of providing a Whois service today would suddenly rocket as each Whois lookup would require human intervention.

Having introduced the concept of layered access and then shot it to pieces, Hamilton finally recommends that ICANN start talks with data protection authorities in the EU in order to find a solution where Whois services can continue to be provided in a form available to the general public in the future”.

ICANN should start an “informal dialogue” with the Article 29 Working Party, the EU privacy watchdog made up of data protection authorities from each member state, and initiate formal consultations with one or more of these DPAs individually, the memo recommends.

The WP29 could prove a tough chat, given that the group has a long history of calling for layered access, and its views, even if changed, would not be binding anyway.

So Hamilton says ICANN, in conjunction with its registries and registrars, should carry out a formal data protection impact assessment (DPIA) and submit it to a relevant DPA in a EU country where it has a corporate presence, such as Belgium.

That way, at least ICANN has a chance of retaining Whois in a vaguely recognizable form while protecting the industry from crippling extra costs.

In short, the industry is still going to have to make some changes to Whois in the first half of 2018, some of which may make Whois access troublesome for many current users, but those changes may not last forever.

ICANN CEO Goran Marby said in a blog post:

We’ve made it a high priority to find a path forward to ensure compliance with the GDPR while maintaining WHOIS to the greatest extent possible. Now, it is time to identify potential models that address both GDPR and ICANN compliance obligations.

We’ll need to move quickly, while taking measured steps to develop proposed compliance models. Based on the analysis from Hamilton, it appears likely that we will need to incorporate the advice about using a layered access model as a way forward.

He wants the industry to submit compliance models by January 10 for publication January 15, with ICANN hoping to “settle on a compliance model by the end of January”.

ICANN: tell us how you will break Whois rules

Kevin Murphy, December 11, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN has invited registrars and registries to formally describe how they plan to break the current rules governing Whois in order to come into compliance with European Union law.

The organization today published a set of guidelines for companies to submit proposals for closing off parts of Whois to most internet users.

It’s the latest stage of the increasingly panicky path towards reconciling ICANN’s contracts with the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU law that comes into full effect in a little over five months.

GDPR is designed to protect the privacy of EU citizens. It’s generally thought to essentially ban the full, blanket, open publication of individual registrants’ contact information, but there’s still some confusion about what exactly registries and registrars can do to become compliant.

Fines maxing out at of millions of euros could be levied against companies that break the GDPR.

ICANN said last month that it would not pursue contracted parties that have to breach their agreements in order to avoid breaking the law.

The catch was that they would have to submit their proposals for revised Whois services to ICANN for approval first. Today is the first time since then that ICANN has officially requested such proposals.

The request appears fairly comprehensive.

Registries and registrars will have to describe how their Whois would differ from the norm, how it would affect interoperability, how protected data could be accessed by parties with “legitimate interests”, and so on.

Proposals would be given to ICANN’s legal adviser on GDPR, the Swedish law firm Hamilton, and published on ICANN’s web site.

ICANN notes that submitting a proposal does not guarantee that it will be accepted.

Open Whois must die, Europe privacy chiefs tell ICANN

Kevin Murphy, December 7, 2017, Domain Policy

Unfettered public access to full Whois records is illegal and has to got to go, an influential European Union advisory body has told ICANN.

The Article 29 Working Party on Data Protection, WP29, wrote to ICANN yesterday to say that “that the original purposes of the WHOIS directories can be achieved via layered access” and that the current system “does not appear to meet the criteria” of EU law.

WP29 is made up of representatives of the data protection agencies in each EU member state. It’s named after Article 29 of the EU’s 1995 Data Protection Directive.

This directive is parent legislation of the incoming General Data Protection Regulation, which from May 2018 will see companies fined potentially millions of euros if they fail to protect the privacy of EU citizens’ data.

But WP29 said that there are questions about the legality of full public Whois under even the 1995 directive, claiming to have been warning ICANN about this since 2003:

WP29 wishes to stress that the unlimited publication of personal data of individual domain name holders raises serious concerns regarding the lawfulness of such practice under the current European Data Protection directive (95/46/EC), especially regarding the necessity to have a legitimate purpose and a legal ground for such processing.

Under the directive and GDPR, companies are not allowed to make consent to the publication of private data a precondition of a service, which is currently the case with domain registration, according to WP29.

Registrars cannot even claim the publication is contractually mandated, because registrants are not party to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, the letter (pdf) says.

WP29 adds that law enforcement should still be able to get access to Whois data, but that a “layered” access control approach should be used to prevent full disclosure to anyone with a web browser.

ICANN recently put a freeze on its contract compliance activities surrounding Whois, asking registries and registrars to supply the organization with the framework and legal advice they’re using to become compliant with GDPR.

Registries and registrars are naturally impatient — after a GDPR-compatible workaround is agreed upon, they’ll still need to invest time and resources into actually implementing it.

But ICANN recently told contracted parties that it hopes to lay out a path forward before school breaks up for Christmas December 22.

ICANN chief tells industry to lawyer up as privacy law looms

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2017, Domain Services

The domain name industry should not rely on ICANN to protect it from incoming EU privacy law.

That’s the strong message that came out of ICANN 60 in Abu Dhabi last week, with the organization’s CEO repeatedly advising companies to seek their own legal advice on compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation.

The organization also said that it will “defer taking action” against any registrar or registry that does not live up its contractual Whois commitments, within certain limits.

“GDPR is a law. I didn’t come up with it, it didn’t come from ICANN policy, it’s the law,” Marby said during ICANN 60 in Abu Dhabi last week.

“This is the first time we’ve seen any legislation that has a direct impact on our ability to make policies,” he said.

GDPR is the EU law governing how companies treat the private information of individuals. While in force now, from May next year companies in any industry found in breach of GDPR could face millions of euros in fines.

For the domain industry, it is expected to force potentially big changes on the current Whois system. The days of all Whois contact information published freely for all to see may well be numbered.

But nobody — not even ICANN — yet knows precisely how registries and registrars are going to be able to comply with the law whilst still publishing Whois data as required by their ICANN contracts.

The latest official line from ICANN is:

At this point, we know that the GDPR will have an impact on open, publicly available WHOIS. We have no indication that abandoning existing WHOIS requirements is necessary to comply with the GDPR, but we don’t know the extent to which personal domain registration data of residents of the European Union should continue to be publicly available.

Marby told ICANNers last week that it might not be definitively known how the law applies until some EU case law has been established in the highest European courts, which could take years.

A GNSO working group and ICANN org have both commissioned legal studies by European law experts. The ICANN one, by Swedish law firm Hamilton, is rather more comprehensive and can be read here (pdf).

Even after this report, Marby said ICANN is still in “discovery” mode.

Marby encouraged the industry to not only submit their questions to ICANN, to be referred on to Hamilton for follow-up studies, but also to share whatever legal advice they have been given and are able to share.

He and others pointed out that Whois is not the only point of friction with GDPR — it’s a privacy law, not a Whois law — so registries and registrars should be studying all of their personal data collection processes for potential conflicts.

Because there is very likely going to be a clash between GDPR compliance and ICANN contract compliance, ICANN has suspended all enforcement actions against Whois violations, within certain parameters.

It said last week that: “ICANN Contractual Compliance will defer taking action against any registry or registrar for noncompliance with contractual obligations related to the handling of registration data.”

This is not ICANN saying that registries and registrars can abandon Whois altogether, the statement stresses, but they might be able to adjust their data-handling models.

Domain firms will have to show “a reasonable accommodation of existing contractual obligations and the GDPR” and will have to submit their models to ICANN for review by Hamilton.

ICANN also stressed that registries may have to undergo a Registry Services Evaluation Process review before they can deploy their new model.

The organization has already told two Dutch new gTLD registries that they must submit to an RSEP, after .amsterdam and .frl abruptly stopped publishing Whois data for private registrants recently.

General counsel John Jeffrey wrote to the registries’ lawyer (pdf) to state that an RSEP is required regardless of whether the “new registry service” was introduced to comply with local law.

“One of the underlying purposes of this policy is to ensure that a new registry service does not create and security, stability or competition concerns,” he wrote.

Jeffrey said that while Whois privacy was offered at the registry level, registrars were still publishing full contact details for the same registrants.

ICANN said last week that it will publish more detailed guidance advising registries and registrars how to avoid breach notices will be published “shortly”.

Amsterdam refuses to publish Whois records as GDPR row escalates

Kevin Murphy, October 23, 2017, Domain Policy

Two Dutch geo-gTLDs are refusing to provide public access to Whois records in what could be a sign of things to come for the whole industry under new European privacy law.

Both .amsterdam and .frl appear to be automatically applying privacy to registrant data and say they will only provide full Whois access to vetted individuals such as law enforcement officials.

ICANN has evidently slapped a breach notice on both registries, which are now complaining that the Whois provisions in their Registry Agreements are “null and void” under Dutch and European Union law.

FRLregistry and dotAmsterdam, based in the Netherlands, are the registries concerned. They’re basically under the same management and affiliated with the local registrar Mijndomein.

dotAmsterdam operates under the authority of the city government. .frl is an abbreviation of Friesland, a Dutch province.

Both companies’ official registry sites, which are virtually identical, do not offer links to Whois search. Instead, they offer a statement about their Whois privacy policy.

That policy states that Dutch and EU law “forbids that names, addresses, telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of Dutch private persons can be accessed and used freely over the internet by any person or organization”.

It goes on to state that any “private person” that registers a domain will have their private contact information replaced with a “privacy protected” message in Whois.

Legal entities such as companies do not count as “private persons”.

Under the standard ICANN Registry Agreement, all new gTLDs are obliged to provide public Whois access under section 2.5. According to correspondence from the lawyer for both .frl and .amsterdam, published by ICANN, the two registries have been told they are in breach.

It seems the breach notices have not yet escalated to the point at which ICANN publishes them on its web site. At least, they have not been published yet for some reason.

But the registries have lawyered up already, regardless.

A letter from Jetse Sprey of Versteeg Wigman Sprey to ICANN says that the registries are free to ignore section 2.5 of their RAs because it’s not compliant with the Dutch Data Protection Act and, perhaps more significantly, the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

The GDPR is perhaps the most pressing issue for ICANN at the moment.

It’s an EU law due to come into effect in May next year. It has the potential to completely rewrite the rules of Whois access for the entire industry, sidestepping the almost two decades of largely fruitless ICANN community discussions on the topic.

It covers any company that processes private data on EU citizens; breaching it can incur fines of up to €20 million or 4% of revenue, whichever is higher.

One of its key controversies is the idea that citizens should have the right to “consent” to their personal data being processed and that this consent cannot be “bundled” with access to the product or service on offer.

According to Sprey, because the Registry Agreement does not give registrants a way to register a domain without giving their consent to their Whois details being published, it violates the GDPR. Therefore, his clients are allowed to ignore that part of the RA.

These two gTLDs are the first I’m aware of to openly challenge ICANN so directly, but GDPR is a fiercely hot topic in the industry right now.

During a recent webinar, ICANN CEO Goran Marby expressed frustration that GDPR seems to have come about — under the watch of previous CEOs — without any input from the ICANN community, consideration in the EU legislative process of how it would affect Whois, or even any discussion within ICANN’s own Governmental Advisory Committee.

“We are seeing an increasing potential risk that the incoming GDPR regulation will mean a limited WHOIS system,” he said October 4. “We appreciate that for registers and registers, this regulation would impact how you will do your business going forward.”

ICANN has engaged EU legal experts and has reached out to data commissioners in the 28 EU member states for guidance, but Marby pointed out that full clarity on how GDPR affects the domain industry could be years away.

It seems possible there would have to be test cases, which could take five years or more, in affected EU states, he suggested.

ICANN is also engaging with the community in its attempt to figure out what to do about GDPR. One project has seen it attempt to gather Whois use cases from interested parties. Long-running community working groups are also looking at the issue.

But the domain industry has accused ICANN the organization of not doing enough fast enough.

Paul Diaz and Graeme Bunton, chairs of the Registries Stakeholder Group and Registrars Stakeholder Group respectively, have recently escalated the complaints over ICANN’s perceived inaction.

They told Marby in a letter that they need to have a solution in place in the next 60 days in order to give them time to implement it before the May 2018 GDPR deadline.

Complaining that ICANN is moving too slowly, the October 13 letter states:

The simple fact is that the requirements under GDPR and the requirements in our contracts with ICANN to collect, retain, display, and transfer personal data stand in conflict with each other.

GDPR presents a clear and present contractual compliance problem that must be resolved, regardless of whether new policy should be developed or existing policy adjusted. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer to start tackling this problem head-on.

For registries and registrars, the lack of clarity and the risk of breach notices are not the only problem. Many registrars make a bunch of cash out of privacy services; that may no longer be as viable a business if privacy for individuals is baked into the rules.

Other interests, such as the Intellectual Property Constituency (in favor of its own members’ continued access to Whois) and non-commercial users (in favor of a fundamental right to privacy) are also complaining that their voices are not being heard clearly enough.

The GDPR issue is likely to be one of the liveliest sources of discussion at ICANN 60, the public meeting that kicks off in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

UPDATE: This post was updated October 25 to add a sentence clarifying that companies are not “private persons”.