European domain registrars say they are facing increased costs of doing business due to a recent court ruling on privacy protection.
As a result, US data escrow giant Iron Mountain is likely to lose a lot of its ICANN business, as EU registrars defect to local alternatives such as UK-based NCC Group.
The ruling in question deals with the so-called “safe harbor” principles, under which European companies were able to transfer customers’ private data to US companies as long as the recipient promised to abide by EU privacy protection rules.
However, former spy Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread privacy violations by the US government seemed to show that many US tech giants were complicit in handing over such data to US spooks.
And now the European Court of Justice has ruled the safe habor principles invalid.
This affects registrars because, under their ICANN contracts, they have to escrow registrant data on a weekly basis. That’s to prevent registrants losing their domains when registrars go out of business or turn out to be crooks.
While registrars have a choice of escrow agents, pretty much all of them use Iron Mountain, because ICANN subsidizes the service down to $0.
However, with the ECJ ruling, Euro-registrars have told ICANN that it would now be “illegal” to continue to use Iron Mountain.
In a recent letter (pdf) to ICANN, about 20 EU-based registrars said that non-European registrars would get a competitive advantage unless ICANN does something about it.
They want ICANN to start subsidizing one or more EU-based escrow agents, enabling them to switch without adding to costs.
the service fees of those [alternative] providers are not being supported by ICANN. Thus, the only solution for EU based registrars to comply with their local laws is to support this extra cost.
We are sure, you will agree this clearly constitutes an unfair disadvantage to a given category of a registrars.
This is why we ask ICANN to offer the same terms as it currently does to Iron Mountain to other RDE [Registrar Data Escrow] providers established in the European Economical Area to ensure a level playing field for registrars globally.
According to the registrars, they have until January to switch, so ICANN may have to move quickly to avoid unrest.
ICANN may be able to provide registrars, intellectual property interests and others with clarity about when domain names should be suspended as early as next month, according to compliance chief Allen Grogan.
With ICANN 53 kicking off in Buenos Aires this weekend, Grogan said he intends to meet with a diverse set of constituents in order to figure out what the Registrar Accreditation Agreement requires registrars to do when they receive abuse complaints.
“I’m hopeful we can publish something in the next few weeks,” he told DI. “It depends to some extent on what direction the discussions take.”
The discussions center on whether registrars are doing enough to take down domains that are being used, for example, to host pirated content or to sell medicines across borders.
Specifically at issue is section 3.18 of the 2013 RAA.
It requires registrars to take “reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately” when they receive abuse reports.
The people who are noisiest about filing such reports — IP owners and pharmacy watchdogs such as LegitScript — reckon “appropriate action” means the domain in question should be suspended.
The US Congress heard these arguments in hearings last month, but there were no witnesses from the ICANN or registrar side to respond.
Registrars don’t think they should be put in the position of having to turn off what may be a perfectly legitimate web site due to a unilateral complaint that may be flawed or frivolous.
ICANN seems to be erring strongly towards the registrars’ view.
“Whatever the terms of the 2013 RAA mean, it can’t really be interpreted as a broad global commitment for ICANN to enforce all illegal activity or all laws on the internet,” Grogan told DI.
“I don’t think ICANN is capable of that, I don’t think we have the expertise or resources to do that, and I don’t think the ICANN multistakeholder community has ever had that discussion and delegated that authority to ICANN,” he said.
Grogan notes that what kind of content violates the law varies wildly from country to country — some states will kill you for blasphemy, in some you can get jail time for denying the Holocaust, in others political dissent is a crime.
“Virtually everybody I’ve spoken with has said that is far outside the scope of ICANN’s remit,” he said.
However, he’s leaving some areas open for discussion,
“There are some constituents, including some participants in the [Congressional] hearing — from the intellectual property community and LegitScript — who think there’s a way to distinguish some kinds of illegal activities from others,” he said. “That’s a discussion I’m willing to have.”
The dividing line could be substantial risk to public health or activities that are broadly, globally deemed to be illegal. Child abuse material is the obvious one, but copyright infringement — where Grogan said treaties show “near unanimity” — could be too.
So is ICANN saying it’s not the content police except when it comes to pharmacies and intellectual property?
“No,” said Grogan. “I’m saying I’m willing to engage in that dialogue and have that conversation with the community to see if there’s consensus that some activities are different to others.”
“In a multistakeholder model I don’t think any one constituency should control,” he said.
In practical terms, this all boils down to 3.18 of the RAA, and what steps registrars must take to comply with it.
It’s a surprisingly tricky one even if, like Grogan, you’re talking about “minimum criteria” for compliance.
Should registrars, for example, be required to always check out the content of domains that are the subject of abuse reports? It seems like a no-brainer.
But Grogan points out that even though there could be broad consensus that child abuse material should be taken down immediately upon discovery, in many places it could be illegal for a registrar employee to even check the reported URL, lest they download unwanted child porn.
Similarly, it might seem obvious that abuse reports should be referred to the domain’s registrant for a response. But what of registrars owned by domain investors, where registrar and registrant are one and the same?
These and other topics will come up for discussion in various sessions next week, and Grogan said he’s hopeful that decisions can be made that do not need to involve formal policy development processes or ICANN board action.
Law enforcement and IP owners were dealt a setback last week when the National Arbitration Forum ruled that they cannot block domain transfers unless they have a court order.
The ruling could make it more difficult for registrars to acquiesce to requests from police trying to shut down piracy sites, as they might technically be in breach of their ICANN contracts.
NAF panelist Bruce Meyerson made the call in a Transfer Dispute Resolution Policy ruling after a complaint filed by EasyDNS against Directi (PublicDomainRegistry.com).
You’re probably asking right about now: “The what policy?”
I had to look it up, too.
It’s designed for disputes where one registrar refuses to transfer a domain to another. As part of the IRTP, it’s a binding part of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.
It seems to have been rarely used in full over the last decade, possibly because the first point of complaint is the registry for the TLD in question, with only appeals going to a professional arbitrator.
Only NAF and the Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre are approved to handle such cases, and their respective records show that only one TDRP appeal has previously filed, and that was in 2013.
In the latest case, Directi had refused to allow the transfer of three domains to EasyDNS after receiving a suspension request from the Intellectual Property Crime Unit of the City of London Police.
The IPCU had sent suspension requests, targeting music download sites “suspected” of criminal activity, to several registrars.
The three sites — maxalbums.com, emp3world.com, and full-albums.net — are all primarily concerned with hosting links to pirated music while trying to install as much adware as possible on visitors’ PCs.
The registrants of the names had tried to move from India-based Directi to Canada-based EasyDNS, but found the transfers denied by Directi.
EasyDNS, which I think it’s fair to say is becoming something of an activist when it come to this kind of thing, filed the TDRP first with Verisign then appealed its “No Decision” ruling to NAF.
NAF’s Meyerson delivered a blunt, if reluctant-sounding, win to EasyDNS:
Although there are compelling reasons why the request from a recognized law enforcement agency such as the City of London Police should be honored, the Transfer Policy is unambiguous in requiring a court order before a Registrar of Record may deny a request to transfer a domain name… The term “court order” is unambiguous and cannot be interpreted to be the equivalent of suspicion of wrong doing by a policy agency.
To permit a registrar of record to withhold the transfer of a domain based on the suspicion of a law enforcement agency, without the intervention of a judicial body, opens the possibility for abuse by agencies far less reputable than the City of London Police.
That’s a pretty unambiguous statement, as far as ICANN policy is concerned: no court order, no transfer block.
It’s probably not going to stop British cops trying to have domains suspended based on suspicion alone — the Metropolitan Police has a track record of getting Nominet to suspend thousands of .uk domains in this way — but it will give registrars an excuse to decline such requests when they receive them, if they want the hassle.
European privacy regulators have slammed the new 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement, saying it would be illegal for registrars based in the EU to comply with it.
The Article 29 Working Party, which comprises privacy regulators from the 27 European Union nations, had harsh words for the part of the contract that requires registrars to store data about registrants for two years after their domains expire.
In a letter (pdf) to ICANN last month, Article 29 states plainly that such provisions would be illegal in the EU:
The fact that these personal data can be useful for law enforcement does not legitimise the retention of these personal data after termination of the contract. Because there is no legal ground for the data processing, the proposed data retention requirement violates data protection law in Europe.
The 2013 RAA allows any registrar to opt out of the data retention provisions if it can prove that to comply would be illegal its own jurisdiction.
The Article 29 letter has been sent to act as blanket proof of this for all EU-based registrars, but it’s not yet clear if ICANN will treat it as such.
The letter goes on to sharply criticize ICANN for allowing itself to be used by governments (and big copyright interests) to circumvent their own legislative processes. It says:
The fact that these data may be useful for law enforcement (including copyright enforcement by private parties) does not equal a necessity to retain these data after termination of the contract.
the Working Party reiterates its strong objection to the introduction of data retention by means of a contract issued by a private corporation in order to facilitate (public) law enforcement.
If there is a pressing social need for specific collections of personal data to be available for law enforcement, and the proposed data retention is proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued, it is up to national governments to introduce legislation
So why is ICANN trying to get many of its registrars to break the law?
While it’s tempting to follow the Article 29 WP’s reasoning and blame law enforcement agencies and the Governmental Advisory Committee, which pushed for the new RAA to be created in the first place, the illegal data retention provisions appear to be entirely ICANN’s handiwork.
The original law enforcement demands (pdf) say registrars should “securely collect and store” data about registrants, but there’s no mention of the period for which it should be stored.
And while the GAC has expressly supported the LEA recommendations since 2010, it has always said that ICANN should comply with privacy laws in their implementation.
The GAC does not appear to have added any of its own recommendations relating to data retention.
However, the European Commission’s GAC representative then seemed to dismiss the WP’s concerns during ICANN’s public meeting in Toronto last October.
Perhaps ICANN was justifiably confused by these mixed messages.
According to Michele Neylon, chair of the Registrars Stakeholder Group, it has yet to respond to European registrars’ inquiries about the Article 29 letter, which was sent June 6.
“We hope that ICANN staff will take the letter into consideration, as it is clear that the data protection authorities do not want create extra work either for themselves or for registrars,” Neylon said.
“For European registrars, and non-European registrars with a customer base in the EU, we look forward to ICANN staff providing us with clarity on how we can deal with this matter and respect EU and national law,” he said.
ICANN’s board of directors is set to vote next week on the 2013 Registrar Accreditation agreement, but we hear some last-minute objections have emerged from registrars.
The new RAA has been about two years in the making. It will make registrars verify email addresses and do some rudimentary mailing address validation when new domains are registered.
It will also set in motion a process for ICANN oversight of proxy/privacy services and some aspects of the reseller business. In order to sell domain names in new gTLDs, registrars will have to sign up to the 2013 RAA.
ICANN has put approval of the contract on its board’s June 27 agenda.
But I gather that some registrars are unhappy about some last-minute changes ICANN has made to the draft deal.
For one, some linguistic tweaks to the text have given registrars an “advisory” role in seeking out technical ways to do the aforementioned address validation, which has caused some concern that ICANN may try to mandate expensive commercial solutions without their approval.
There also appears to be some concern that the new contract now requires registrars to make sure their resellers follow the same rules on proxy/privacy services, which wasn’t in previous drafts.