The domain name industry is kicking off one of its most fundamental shifts in its plumbing this week.
Over the next two years, Verisign and every registrar that sells .com domains will have to rejigger their systems to convert .com from a “thin” to “thick” Whois.
This means that by February 1, 2019, Verisign will for the first time control the master database of all Whois records for .com domains, rather than it being spread piecemeal across all registrars.
The switch comes as a result of a years-in-the-making ICANN policy that officially came into force yesterday. It also applies to .com stablemates .net and .jobs.
The first big change will come August 1 this year, the deadline by which Verisign has to give all of its registrars the ability to submit thick Whois records both live (for new regs) and in bulk (for existing ones).
May 1, 2018 is the deadline for all registrars to start submitting thick Whois for new regs to Verisign, but they can start doing so as early as August this year if they want to.
Registrars have until February 1, 2019 to supply Verisign with thick Whois for all their existing registrations.
There’s a process for registrars who believe they would be violating local privacy laws by transferring this data to US-based Verisign to request an exemption, which may prevent the transition going perfectly uniformly.
Some say that the implementation of this policy may allow Verisign to ask for the ability to ask a for an increase in .com registry fees — currently frozen at the command of the US government — due to its inevitably increased costs.
Personally, I think the added costs will likely be chickenfeed compared to the cash-printing machine that is .com, so I think it’s far from a slam-dunk that such fee increases would be approved.
Verisign could be running a “thick” Whois database for .com, .net and .jobs by mid-2017, under a new ICANN proposal.
A timetable published this week would see the final three hold-out gTLDs fully move over to the standard thick Whois model by February 2019, with the system live by next August.
Some people believe that Verisign might use the move as an excuse to increase .com prices.
Thick Whois is where the registry stores the full Whois record, containing all registrant contact data, for every domain in their TLD.
The three Verisign TLDs currently have “thin” Whois databases, which only store information about domain creation dates, the sponsoring registrar and name servers.
The model dates back to when the registry and registrar businesses of Verisign’s predecessor, Network Solutions, were broken up at the end of the last century.
But it’s been ICANN consensus policy for about three years for Verisign to eventually switch to a thick model.
Finally, ICANN has published for public comment its anticipated schedule (pdf) for this to happen.
Under the proposal, Verisign would have to start offering registrars the ability to put domains in its thick Whois by August 1 2017, both live via EPP and in bulk.
It would not become obligatory for registrars to submit thick Whois for all newly registered domains until May 1, 2018.
They’d have until February 1, 2019 to bulk-migrate all existing Whois records over to the new system.
Thick Whois in .com has been controversial for a number of reasons.
Some registrars have expressed dissatisfaction with the idea of migrating part of their customer relationship to Verisign. Others have had concerns that local data protection laws may prevent them moving data in bulk overseas.
The new proposal includes a carve-out that would let registrars request an exemption from the requirements if they can show it would conflict with local laws, which holds the potential to make a mockery out of the entire endeavor.
Some observers also believe that Verisign may use the expense of building and operating the new Whois system as an excuse to trigger talks with ICANN about increasing the price of .com from its current, frozen level.
Under its .com contract, Verisign can ICANN ask for a fee increase “due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy”, which is exactly what the move to thick Whois is.
Whether it would choose to exercise this right is another question — .com is a staggeringly profitable cash-printing machine and this Whois is not likely to be that expensive, relatively speaking.
The proposed implementation timetable is open for public comment until December 15.
This year is likely to see a new fight over whether Verisign should be forced to create a “thick” Whois database for .com and its other generic top-level domains.
While Verisign has taken a deliberately ambivalent position on whether ICANN policy talks should kick off, the community is otherwise split on whether a mandatory thick Whois is a good idea.
Currently, only .com, .net, .name and .jobs – which are all managed on Verisign’s registry back-end – use a thin Whois model, in which domain name registrars store their customers’ data.
Other gTLDs all store registrant data centrally. Some “sponsored” gTLD registries have an even closer relationship with Whois data — ICM Registry for example verifies .xxx registrants’ identities.
But in a Preliminary Issue Report published in November, ICANN asked whether it should kick off a formal Policy Development Process that could make thick Whois a requirement in all gTLDs.
In comments filed with ICANN last week, Verisign said:
As the only existing registry services provider impacted by any future PDP on Thick Whois, Verisign will neither advocate for nor against the initiation of a PDP.
Verisign believes the current Whois model for .com, .net, .name and .jobs is effective and that the proper repository of registrant data is with registrars — the entities with direct connection to their customers. However, if the community, including our customers, determines through a PDP that “going thick” is now the best approach, we will respect and implement the policy decision.
Thick Whois services make it easier to find out who owns domain names. Currently, a Whois look-up for a .com domain can require multiple queries at different web sites.
While Whois aggregation services such as DomainTools can simplify searches today, they still face the risk of being blocked by dominant registrars.
The thin Whois model can also make domain transfers trickier, as we witnessed just last week when NameCheap ran into problems processing inbound transfers from Go Daddy.
ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency supports the transition to a thick Whois. It said in its comments:
Simplifying access to this information through thick Whois will help prevent abuses of intellectual property, and will protect the public in many ways, including by reducing the level of consumer confusion and consumer fraud in the Internet marketplace. Thick Whois enables quicker response and resolution when domain names are used for illegal, fraudulent or malicious purposes.
However, Verisign noted that a thicker Whois does not mean a more accurate Whois database – registrars will still be responsible for collecting and filing customer contact records.
There are also concerns that a thick Whois could have implications for registrant privacy. Wendy Seltzer of the Non-Commercial Users Constituency told ICANN:
Moving all data to the registry could facilitate invasion of privacy and decrease the jurisdictional control registrants have through their choice of registrar. Individual registrants in particular may be concerned that the aggregation of data in a thick WHOIS makes it more attractive to data miners and harder to confirm compliance with their local privacy laws.
This concern was echoed to an extent by Verisign, which noted that transitioning to a thick Whois would mean the transfer of large amounts of data between legal jurisdictions.
European registrars, for example, could face a problem under EU data protection laws if they transfer their customer data in bulk to US-based Verisign.
Verisign also noted that a transition to a thick Whois would dilute the longstanding notion that registrars “own” their customer relationships. It said in its comments:
As recently as the June 2011 ICANN meeting in Singapore, Verisign heard from several registrars that they are still not comfortable with Verisign holding their customers’ data. Other registrars have noted no concern with such a transition
ICANN staff will now incorporate these and other comments into its final Issue Report, which will then be sent to the GNSO Council to decide whether a PDP is required.
If the Council votes in favor of a PDP, it would be many months, if at all, before a policy binding on Verisign was created.