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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.

OpenTLD cybersquatting fight escalates

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2015, Domain Registrars

ICANN has accused OpenTLD, the registrar arm of Freenom, of cybersquatting famous brands even after it was threatened with suspension.

The claims may be worrying for some registrars as ICANN may in fact be holding the registrar responsible for the actions of its proxy service customers.

OpenTLD was suspended by ICANN in early July, after two UDRP rulings found the company had cybersquatted rival registrars’ brands in order to poach customers.

The suspension was lifted after just a few hours when OpenTLD took ICANN to arbitration under the terms of its Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

In ICANN’s latest arbitration filing, the organization’s lawyers argue that the suspension should not be stayed, because OpenTLD has been shown to engage in a pattern of cybersquatting.

Like the original suspension notice, the filing cites the two UDRP losses, along with footnotes indicating that as many as seven competing brands had been cybersquatted.

But ICANN has now also escalated its allegations to bring in non-registrar brands where it’s far from clear that OpenTLD is the actual registrant.

ICANN’s filing states:

even a brief review of the domain names in OpenTLD’s portfolio demonstrates that OpenTLD appears to be continuing to engage in bad faith and abusive registration practices. As of 3 August 2015, there were at least 73 gTLD domains registered to Stichting OpenTLD WHOIS Proxy (which is OpenTLD’s proxy service) that are identical to or contain the registered trademarks or trade names of third parties, including, by way of small example, the domain names barnesandnoble.link, sephora.bargains, at-facebook.com, ebaybh.com, googlefreeporn.com, global-paypal.com, hotmailtechnicalsupport.com, and secure-apple.com. ICANN is not aware of any legitimate interest or right that OpenTLD has to use these third-party trademarks and trade names.

Even more concerning is the fact that at least 14 gTLD domain names that contain the registered trademarks or trade names of third parties were registered by OpenTLD’s proxy service after the 23 June 2015 Suspension Notice was issued to OpenTLD, further demonstrating that OpenTLD’s overtures of “cooperation” ring hollow.

To be clear, that’s ICANN accusing OpenTLD of cybersquatting because some of the domains registered via its privacy service appear to be trademark infringements.

It’s basically equating infringing use of OpenTLD’s proxy service (such the registration of barnesandnoble.link) with the infringing behavior of OpenTLD itself (such as the registration of godaddy.cf, a February 2015 screenshot of which can be seen below.)

This may just be legal posturing, but I imagine many other registrars would be worried to know that they could have their accreditation suspended for cybersquatting simply because some of their privacy customers are cybersquatters.

I’d wager that every proxy/privacy service available has been used by blatant cybersquatters at one time or another.

Filings in the arbitration case can be found here.

Whois privacy supporters to top 20,000

Over 20,000 people have put their names to statements slamming proposals that would ban some commercial web sites from using Whois privacy on their domains.

ICANN’s public comment period on a working group’s Whois privacy reform proposals closes today after two months, with roughly 11,000 individual comments — the vast majority against changes that would weaken privacy rights — already filed.

Separately, Michele Neylon of Blacknight Solutions, which hosts SaveDomainPrivacy.org, tells DI that a petition signed by more than 9,000 people will be submitted to ICANN tonight.

If we count the signatories as commenters, that would make this the largest ICANN comment period to date, outstripping the 14,000 comments received when religious groups objected to the approval of .xxx in 2010.

SaveDomainPrivacy.org and RespectOurPrivacy.org, separate registrar-led initiatives, are responsible for the large majority of comments.

While registrars no doubt have business reasons for objecting to the muddling the Whois privacy market, their letter-writing outreach has been based on their claims that they could be forced to unmask the Whois of vulnerable home-business owners and such.

The Privacy & Proxy Services Accreditation Issues Working Group (PPSAI) report, published in May, sketches out a framework that could allow intellectual property owners to have privacy removed from domains they suspect of hosting infringing content.

A minority position appended to the report by MarkMonitor, Facebook, LegitScript and supported by members of the Intellectual Property and Business Constituencies, would put a blanket ban on using privacy on domains used to commercially transact.

ICANN dragged into Gamergate as Whois reform cast as misogynist threat

Kevin Murphy, July 2, 2015, Domain Policy

What do ICANN’s current Whois privacy reform proposals have to do with the “Gamergate” controversy?

Quite a lot, according to the latest group to slam the proposals as an enabler for “doxing… harassment… swatting… stalking… rape and death threats.”

The Online Abuse Prevention Initiative was formed in March by female software developers in the wake of a sexism slash online abuse scandal that continues to divide the video game community.

Led by Randi Harper, OAPI’s first public move was to today write to ICANN to complain about the GNSO Privacy & Proxy Services Accreditation Issues (PPSAI) Working Group Initial Report.

The report, as previously reported, contains a minority opinion that would ban transactional e-commerce sites from using Whois privacy services.

OAPI said today that this posed a risk of “doxing” — the practice of publishing the home address and other personal information about someone with the aim to encourage harassment — and “swatting”, where people call up America’s notoriously trigger-happy cops to report violent crimes at their intended victim’s home address.

Harper, who was one of the targets of the Gamergate movement (Google her for examples of the vitriol) claims to have been a victim of both. The OAPI letter says she “was swatted based on information obtained from the WHOIS record for her domain.”

The letter, which is signed by groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the National Council of Women’s Organizations, and dozens of noted digital rights voices, says:

We strongly oppose the Working Group’s proposal, which will physically endanger many domain owners and disproportionately impact those who come from marginalized communities. People perceived to be women, nonwhite, or LGBTQ are often targeted for harassment, and such harassment inflicts significant harm

Even the most limited definition of a “website handling online financial transactions for commercial purpose” will encompass a wide population that could be severely harmed by doxing, such as:

  • women indie game developers who sell products through their own online stores
  • freelance journalists and authors who market their work online
  • small business owners who run stores or businesses from their homes
  • activists who take donations to fund their work, especially those living under totalitarian regimes
  • people who share personal stories online to crowdfund medical procedures

To make things worse, the proposed definition of what constitutes “commercial purpose” could be expanded to include other types of activity such as running ads or posting affiliate links.

The letter does not directly refer to Gamergate, but some of the signatories are its most prominent victims and the allusions are clearly there.

Gamergate is described somewhere in its 9,000-word Wikipedia article as “part of a long-running culture war against efforts to diversify the traditionally male video gaming community, particularly targeting outspoken women.”

At its benign end, it was a movement for stronger ethics in video game journalism. At its malignant end, it involved quite a lot of male gamers sending abuse and violent threats to female players and developers.

The PPSAI report is open for comment until July 7. It has so far attracted over 10,000 emails, most of them rustled up by registrar letter-writing campaigns here and here.

Go Daddy advertising privacy petition on Facebook

Go Daddy appears to be putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to arguments about domain privacy.

The company is paying for “sponsored” posts on Facebook that promote the ongoing petition against proposed changes to Whois policy at ICANN.

This has been appearing on Facebook for me all day, seriously interrupting my Farmville time:

Go Daddy ad

Clicking the ad takes you directly to the Save Domain Privacy petition, rather than a Go Daddy sales pitch.

As I reported last week, thousands of internet users have blasted ICANN with template comments complaining about proposed limits on Whois privacy.

There are currently over 10,000 such comments, I estimate, with over a week left until the filing deadline.

Registrars, Go Daddy among them, are largely concerned about a minority proposal emerging from in a proxy/privacy service accreditation working group that would ban transactional e-commerce sites from having private registrations.

They’re also bothered that intellectual property owners could get more rights to unmask privacy users under the proposals.

Despite Go Daddy’s outreach, Repect Our Privacy, letter-writing campaign, backed by NameCheap and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, seems to be responsible for most of the comments filed to date.

Not that it’s necessarily relevant today, but NameCheap and Go Daddy were on opposing sides of the Stop Online Piracy Act debate — a linked controversy — a few years back.

Registrars open floodgate of Whois privacy outrage

Kevin Murphy, June 26, 2015, Domain Policy

A letter-writing campaign orchestrated by the leading domain registrars has resulted in ICANN getting hit with over 8,000 pro-privacy comments in less than a week.

It’s the largest volume of comments received by ICANN on an issue since right-wing Christian activists deluged ICANN with protests about .xxx, back in 2010.

The comments — the vast majority of them unedited template letters — were filed in response to the GNSO Privacy & Proxy Services Accreditation Issues (PPSAI) Working Group Initial Report.

That report attempts to bring privacy and proxy services, currently unregulated by ICANN, under ICANN’s contractual wing.

There are two problematic areas, as far as the registrars are concerned.

The first is the ability of trademark and copyright owners to, under certain circumstances, have the registrant of a privately registered name unmasked.

Upon receiving such a request, privacy services would have 15 days to obtain a response from their customer. They’d then have to make a call as to whether to reveal their contact information to the IP owner or not.

Possibly the most controversial aspect of this is described here:

Disclosure 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.

In other words, the privacy services (in most cases, also the registrar) would be forced make a judgement on whether web site content is illegal, in the absence of a court order, before removing Whois privacy on a domain.

The second problematic area is an “additional statement” on domains used for commercial activity, appended to the PPSAI report, penned by MarkMonitor on behalf of Facebook, LegitScript, DomainTools, IP attorneys Smith, Gambreall & Russell, and itself.

Those companies believe it should be against the rules for anyone who commercially transacts via their web site to use Whois privacy.

Running ads on a blog, say, would be fine. But asking for, for example, credit card details in order to transact would preclude you from using privacy services.

The PPSAI working group didn’t even approach consensus on this topic, and it’s not a formal recommendation in its report.

Regardless, it’s one of the lynchpins of the current registrar letter-writing campaigns.

A page at SaveDomainPrivacy.org — the site backed by dozens of registrars big and small — describes circumstances under which somebody would need privacy even though they engage in e-commerce.

Home-based businesses, shelters for domestic abuse victims that accept donations, and political activists are all offered up as examples.

Visitors to the site are (or were — the site appears to be down right now (UPDATE: it’s back up)) invited to send a comment to ICANN supporting:

The legitimate use of privacy or proxy services to keep personal information private, protect physical safety, and prevent identity theft

The use of privacy services by all, for all legal purposes, regardless of whether the website is “commercial”

That privacy providers should not be forced to reveal my private information without verifiable evidence of wrongdoing

The content of the site was the subject of a sharp disagreement between MarkMonitor and Tucows executives last Saturday during ICANN 53. I’d tell you exactly what was said, but the recording of the relevant part of the GNSO Saturday session has not yet been published by ICANN.

Another site, which seems to be responsible for the majority of the 8,000+ comments received this week, is backed by the registrar NameCheap and the digital civil rights groups the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight For The Future.

NameCheap appears to be trying to build on the reputation it started to create for itself when it opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act a few years ago, going to so far as to link the Whois privacy reforms to SOPA on the campaign web site, which says:

Your privacy provider could be forced to publish your contact data in WHOIS or even give it out to anyone who complains about your website, without due process. Why should a small business owner have to publicize her home address just to have a website?

We think your privacy should be protected, regardless of whether your website is personal or commercial, and your confidential info should not be revealed without due process. If you agree, it’s time to tell ICANN.

The EFF’s involvement seems to have grabbed the attention of many reporters in the general tech press, generating dozens of headlines this week.

The public comment period on the PPSAI initial report ends July 7.

If it continues to attract attention, it could wind up being ICANN’s most-subscribed comment period ever.

Do geeks care about privacy more than Christians care about porn? We’ll find out in a week and a half.

Group uses FOI to demand entire .nyc Whois database

Former .nyc hopeful Connecting.nyc has requested a dump of the entire .nyc Whois database using freedom of information legislation.

According to a blog post, the group has filed a request under the New York Freedom of Information Law for all 75,000 Whois records.

Connecting.nyc says it wants the data in order to plot every .nyc registrant on a map of the city to see “if the name purchasers were spread evenly over the city or concentrated in a particular neighborhood or borough. And if they were from a particular social or economic strata.”

It says it has spent 10 weeks asking for the data via email but has been rebuffed.

Under ICANN Registry Agreements, registries are under no obligation to offer bulk Whois access. Registrars are supposed to allow it under their accreditation agreements, but are allowed to charge huge sums.

The .nyc space does not allow private registrations. Its Whois data is all publicly accessible and could conceivably be mined via sequential queries.

The new gTLD is managed by Neustar but assigned to the City of New York, making it essentially government-owned.

It will be interesting to see whether Whois access falls under FOI law. Many other geographic gTLDs have government links and may fall under their own respective FOI legislation.

Connecting.nyc once intended to apply for .nyc itself, but is now a sort of self-appointed community watchdog for the gTLD. It’s an At-Large structure within ICANN.

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.