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DI Leaders Roundtable #2 — Should we kill off “Whois”?

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2019, Domain Tech

Should we stop using the word “Whois” to describe registration data lookup services?

That’s the question I posed for the second DI Leaders Roundtable.

I’m sure you’re all very well aware that the Registration Data Access Protocol (RDAP) is the imminent replacement for the Whois protocol, as the technical method by which domain registrant contact information is stored, transmitted and displayed.

ICANN also regularly refers to Registration Data Directory Services (RDDS) as a protocol-independent blanket term covering the concept of looking up Whois or RDAP data.

You may also recall that ICANN, which is ostensibly a technical body, appears to bedeprecating the word “Whois” in favor of “Lookup” on its own web-based query service.

ICANN has a track record of introducing new acronyms to describe already well-understood functions. The IANA has technically been called “Public Technical Identifiers” for years, but does anyone actually call it “PTI”? No, everyone still talks about “IANA”.

So I wanted to know:

Should we continue to call it “Whois” after the technical transition to RDAP is complete? Will you continue to refer to “Whois”? Should we change to a different word or acronym? Should the industry standardardize its language one way or the other?

There seems to be a general consensus that “Whois” ain’t going anywhere.

The responses, in no particular order.

Jothan Frakes, Executive Director, Domain Name Association

Mugshot

The term WHOIS won’t quickly leave the zeitgeist due to the decades of its use as a description of the lookup process. Lookup is somewhat confusing, as there is DNS Query lookup that works across the resolution system, and WHOIS Lookup that works to find registrant info via the registration system. As far as the term “Lookup” as the label for the new normal that is poised to replace WHOIS? It is better than the acronym “RDDS”. The general public probably would not assume that RDDS is a way to find out about a domain owner or registration information, because it sounds like it involves dentistry (DDS) if one is not following the ICANN world as close as insiders. Despite the evolutionary path the basic function seems to be on, it is likely that WHOIS continues to be what the nickname for the lookup process called, regardless of the support technology layers below it not literally being WHOIS.

Frank Schilling, CEO, Uniregistry

Mugshot

WHOIS IS DEAD, LONG LIVE WHOIS.

The echo of “Whois” will live long after Whois is dead and gone. The very nature of its replacement word “Lookup” ensures that the information hungry public will expect more fulsome data than ICANN intends the word to provide. There will continue to be services who try to engineer a Whois hack and provide accurate underlying data for paying customers. Whois is going to outlive all of us. Even those who diet, exercise, and eat organic food.

Dave Piscitello, Partner, Interisle Consulting Group

MugshotJust as most of the world isn’t familiar with new TLDs, most have no appreciation for the differences between Whois and RDAP. The term “Whois” is convenient, memorable, and embedded. It also represents a service to most users, not a protocol, so if we do “standardize” we should use “RDS”. While we sort out the disastrous effects of ICANN’s Temp Spec policy on both investigators and victims of DNS abuse, most parties involved with educating policy makers and legislators should continue to use Whois for consistency’s sake.

Christa Taylor, CMO, MMX

MugshotAs the old adage goes, “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” While “Whois” may have lost some of its luster due to GDPR I prefer to retain the term — it’s simple, representative of the information it provides and avoids adding any confusion especially for people outside of ICANN. Employing standardized language is, of course, logical and after twenty years of using “Whois” it is the accepted term both inside and outside the industry.

Sandeep Ramchamdani, CEO, Radix Registry

MugshotFirst up, the transition to the RDAP system is much needed given the fundamental flaws of Whois.

It would help in placing some guardrails around customers’ privacy while still providing agencies such as law enforcement authenticated access that they need to do their work.

Whois is a major cause of spam and in the age where privacy is top currency, public, unauthenticated availability of personal data is unacceptable.

It should also smooth out inter-registrar transfers and lower customer frustration while moving out to a different service provider.

When it comes to its name, calling it “RDAP” or “Lookup” would be a branding error. It would cause some confusion and for those not intimately involved in the industry, who may find it hard to discover the new system.

In my mind, keeping the original nomenclature “Whois”, while making it clear that it’s a newer avatar of the same solution would be the way to go.

Can’t think of a better term than “Whois 2.0”.

Very easy to understand that it’s a newer, more advanced iteration of the same product.

Michele Neylon, CEO, Blacknight

Mugshot

Whois was originally a simple little protocol that allowed network operators to contact each other to address technical issues. It predates the usage of domain names or the “web”.

When domains were introduced the same concept was simply transposed over to the new identifiers.

However over the past 20 plus years the way that people viewed Whois has morphed dramatically. The first time I spoke at an ICANN meeting 12 years ago was on the subject of Whois!

Now the term is used both to talk about the technical protocol, which is being replaced in the gTLD space and the data that it is used to store and possibly display. We talk about “Thin Whois”, “Thick Whois” and so many other services and issues linked back to it.

Whois as a protocol is far from perfect, which is why replacing the technical side of it makes a lot of sense.

So with the world slowly moving towards a new technical method for processing domain registration data then maybe we should come up with another word for it. However I’m not sure if there’s much to be gained by doing that.

We are all used to the floppy disk icon to save a document, even if floppy disks are no longer used. With the term “Whois” being part of people’s vocabulary for the nearly a quarter of a century. it’d be pretty hard to find a simple replacement and have people adopt it widely. Sure, in the more technical conversations it makes sense to use more accurate terms like “RDAP”, but the average punter just wants to be able to use a term that they can understand.

Those of us who work with domains and internet technology in our day jobs might care about the “correct” terminology, but we’re in a minority. We all get excited when the mainstream media picks up on a story involving domain names or the DNS and even gets half of it right! If we conjure up some new term that we think is accurate it’ll take years before anyone outside our bubble is comfortable with it. So I don’t think we should.

We should simply accept that “Whois” is a term used to refer to domain registration data no matter what technology under the hood is used to handle it.

Rick Schwartz, domain investor

MugshotHate to give the same basic answer to two questions in a row, but who cares?

Really!! Who cares? Nobody!

This is inside baseball that doesn’t affect anyone on the entire planet except for a handful of domain investors and ICANN etc.

Call it whatever you like just make sure it’s public info.

Facebook clashes with registrars after massive private data request

Kevin Murphy, July 26, 2018, Domain Policy

Facebook is on the warpath, testing the limits of personal data disclosure in the post-GDPR world.

Via an intermediary called AppDetex, the company recently filed 500 requests for non-public Whois contact information with various registrars, covering potentially thousands of domains, and is now complaining to ICANN that almost all of the replies it received were “non-responsive”.

DI has learned that Facebook is not only asking registrars for Whois data on specific domains it believes infringe its trademarks, however. It’s also asking them to provide complete lists of domains owned by the same registrant, along with the Whois data for those domains, something registrars have never been obliged to provide, even pre-GDPR.

It’s now pissed that almost all of its requests were blown off, with registrars giving various reasons they could not provide the data.

AppDetex is a brand protection services firm and ICANN-accredited registrar. It’s built an automated system for generating Whois disclosure requests and sending them to registrars.

Ben Milam, its general counsel, wrote to ICANN last week to urge the organization to come up with, and more importantly enforce, a framework for brand owners to request private Whois data.

The company has stopped short of filing formal complaints against the registrars with ICANN’s compliance division, but Milam said it will in future:

we do plan to file complaints in the future, but not until ICANN has (i) established proper disclosure guidelines for non-public WHOIS requests for the registrar base to follow, and (ii) implemented an enforcement process that will ensure that brand holder requests are being satisfied.

The letter says that only one registrar responded adequately, to three of its disclosure requests. That was FBS Inc, which I believe is Turkey’s largest registrar. Turkey is not in the EU.

One registrar on Facebook’s naughty list is Ireland-based Blacknight Solutions, which received three disclosure requests but did not provide AppDetex with the information it wanted.

Blacknight CEO Michele Neylon shared a copy of one of these requests, which he said was received via email July 2, with DI.

In my view, the request is clearly automated, giving the registrar a deadline to respond 48 hours in the future accurate to the second. It cites five Facebook trademarks — Facebook, FB, Instagram, Oculous and WhatsApp.

At Blacknight’s request, I won’t disclose the domain here, but it begins with the string “insta”. At first glance it’s not an clear-cut case of cybersquatting the Instagram trademark. It’s currently parked, displaying ad links unrelated to Instagram.

The email asks the registrar to turn over the full non-public Whois contact information for the registrant, technical contact and administrative contact, but it goes on to also ask for:

4. All other domain names registered under this registrant’s account or email address

5. All information in requests 1, 2, and 3 for all domains provided in response to request 4

This would increase the volume of Whois records requested by Facebook from 500 to, very probably, thousands.

This reverse-Whois data was not previously available via vanilla registrar-provided Whois, though it may be under successor protocol RDAP. Brand owners would have to use a commercial third-party service such as DomainTools in order to connect a registrant to the rest of his portfolio.

It’s debatable whether registrars will be obliged to provide this reverse-Whois capability on non-public data to brand owners even after RDAP becomes the norm.

The request says Facebook needs the data in order “to investigate and prevent intellectual property infringement and contact infringing parties and relevant service providers” and “to facilitate legal action against the registrant”.

Facebook says it’s entitled to the data under Article 6(1)(f) of the GDPR as it’s “necessary for the purposes of our legitimate interests, namely (1) identifying the registered holder of a domain name and their contact information to investigate and respond to potential trademark infringement and (2) enforcing legal claims.”

Currently, registrars are governed by ICANN’s Temporary Specification for Whois, a GDPR-related Band-Aid designed to last until the ICANN community can create a formal policy.

Access to non-public Whois data is governed by section 4 of the Temp Spec, which reads in part:

Registrar and Registry Operator MUST provide reasonable access to Personal Data in Registration Data to third parties on the basis of a legitimate interests pursued by the third party, except where such interests are overridden by the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the Registered Name Holder or data subject pursuant to Article 6(1)(f) GDPR.

In the absence of a formal ICANN policy, legal precedent, or specific guidance from data protection authorities, it’s not abundantly clear how registrars are supposed to comply with this clause of the spec, which may explain why Facebook is getting different responses from different registrars.

Neylon said that Blacknight responded to the disclosure requests by asking Facebook to produce an Irish court order.

He said the requests were overly broad, did not provide any contact information for the requester, did not provide a specific complaint against the registrants, and did not specify what privacy safeguards Facebook planned to subject the data to once it was handed over.

It seems Blacknight was not alone. According to AppDetex’s letter to ICANN, at least six other registrars replied denying the requests and saying:

complainant (Facebook) must utilize legal process of a subpoena or court order; complainant must file a UDRP action; complainant must file an action with WIPO; complainant must contact WIPO; and/or complainant’s request has been forwarded to the domain owner.

Milam said (pdf) that he expects the volume of requests to increase and that registrars’ responses will be forwarded to ICANN Compliance to help create a normalized framework for dealing with such requests.