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ICANN confirms GoDaddy Whois probe

ICANN is looking into claims that GoDaddy is in breach of its registrar accreditation contract.

The organization last week told IP lawyer Brian Winterfeldt that his complaint about the market-leading registrar throttling and censoring Whois queries over port 43 is being looked at by its compliance department.

The brief note (pdf) says that Compliance is “in receipt of the correspondence and will address it under its process”.

Winterfeldt is annoyed that GoDaddy has starting removing contact information from its port 43 Whois responses, in what the company says is an anti-spam measure.

It’s also started throttling port 43 queries, causing no end of problems at companies such as DomainTools.

Winterfeldt wrote last month “nothing in their contract permits GoDaddy to mask data elements, and evidence of illegality must be obtained before GoDaddy is permitted to throttle or deny port 43 Whois access to any particular IP address”.

It’s worth saying that ICANN is not giving any formal credibility to the complaint merely by looking into it.

But while it’s usual for ICANN to publish its responses to correspondence it has received and published, it’s rather less common for it to disclose the existence of a compliance investigation before it has progressed to a formal breach notice.

It could all turn out to be moot anyway, given the damage GDPR is likely to do to Whois across the industry in a matter of weeks.

Lawyer: GoDaddy Whois changes a “critical” contract breach

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy is in violation of its ICANN registrar contract by throttling access to its Whois database, according to a leading industry lawyer.

Brian Winterfeldt of the Winterfeldt IP Group has written to ICANN to demand its compliance team enforces what he calls a “very serious contractual breach”.

At issue is GoDaddy’s recent practice, introduced in January, of masking key fields of Whois when accessed in an automated fashion over port 43.

The company no longer shows the name, email address or phone number of its registrants over port 43. Web-based Whois, which has CAPTCHA protection, is unaffected.

It’s been presented as an anti-spam measure. In recent years, GoDaddy has been increasingly accused (wrongly) of selling customer details to spammers pitching web hosting and SEO services, whereas in fact those details have been obtained from public Whois.

But many in the industry are livid about the changes.

Back in January, DomainTools CEO Tim Chen told us that, even as a white-listed known quantity, its port 43 access was about 2% of its former levels.

And last week competing registrar Namecheap publicly complained that Whois throttling was hindering inbound transfers from GoDaddy.

Winterfeldt wrote (pdf) that “nothing in their contract permits GoDaddy to mask data elements, and evidence of illegality must be obtained before GoDaddy is permitted to throttle or deny
port 43 Whois access to any particular IP address”, adding:

The GoDaddy whitelist program has created a dire situation where businesses dependent upon unmasked and robust port 43 Whois access are forced to negotiate wholly subjective terms for access, and are fearful of filing complaints with ICANN because they are reticent to publicize any disruption in service, or because they fear retaliation from GoDaddy…

This is a very serious contractual breach, which threatens to undermine the stability and security of the Internet, as well as embolden other registrars to make similar unilateral changes to their own port 43 Whois services. It has persisted for far too long, having been officially implemented on January 25, 2018. The tools our communities use to do our jobs are broken. Cybersecurity teams are flying blind without port 43 Whois data. And illegal activity will proliferate online, all ostensibly in order to protect GoDaddy customers from spam emails. That is completely disproportionate and unacceptable

He did not disclose which client, if any, he was writing on behalf of, presumably due to fear of reprisals.

He added that his initial outreaches to ICANN Compliance have not proved fruitful.

ICANN said last November that it would not prosecute registrar breaches of the Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreements, subject to certain limits, as the industry focuses on becoming compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation.

But GoDaddy has told us that the port 43 throttling is unrelated to GDPR and to the compliance waiver.

Masking Whois data, whether over port 43 or not, is likely to soon become a fact of life anyway. ICANN’s current proposal for GDPR compliance would see public Whois records gutted, with only accredited users (such as law enforcement) getting access to full records.

Namecheap accuses GoDaddy of delaying transfers

GoDaddy broke ICANN rules and US competition law by delaying outbound domain transfers yesterday, and not for the first time, according to angry rival Namecheap.

March 6 was Namecheap’s annual Move Your Domain Day, a promotion under which it donates $1.50 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for every inbound transfer from another registrar.

It’s a tradition the company opportunistically started back in 2011 specifically targeting GoDaddy’s support, later retracted, for the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA.

But yesterday GoDaddy was delivering “incomplete Whois information”, which interrupted the automated transfer process and forced Namecheap to resort to manual verification, delaying transfers, Namecheap claims.

“First and foremost this practice is against ICANN rules and regulations. Secondly, we believe it violates ‘unfair competition’ laws,” the company said in a blog post.

Whois verification is a vital part of the transfer process, which is governed by ICANN’s binding Inter-Registrar Transfer Policy.

GoDaddy changed its Whois practices in January. As an anti-spam measure, it no longer publishes contact information, including email addresses vital to the transfer process, when records are accessed automatically over port 43.

However, GoDaddy VP James Bladel told us in January that this was not supposed to affect competing registrars, which have their IP addresses white-listed for port 43 access via a system coordinated by ICANN.

Did GoDaddy balls up its new restrictive Whois practices? Or can the blame be shared?

Namecheap also ran into problems with GoDaddy throttling port 43 on its first Move Your Domain Day in 2011, but DI published screenshots back then suggesting that the company had failed to white-list its IP addresses with ICANN.

This time, the company insists the white-list was not an issue, writing:

As many customers have recently complained of transfer issues, we suspect that GoDaddy is thwarting/throttling efforts to transfer domains away from them. Whether automated or not, this is unacceptable. In preparation for today, we had previously whitelisted IPs with GoDaddy so there would be no excuse for this poor business practice.

Namecheap concluded by saying that all transfers that have been initiated will eventually go through. It also asked affected would-be customers to complain to GoDaddy.

The number of transfers executed on Move Your Domain Day over the last several years appears to be well into six figures, probably amounting to seven figures of annual revenue.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has seriously limited DomainTools’ access to its customers’ Whois records, pissing off DomainTools.

DomainTools CEO Tim Chen this week complained to DI that its access to Whois has been throttled back significantly in recent months, making it very difficult to keep its massive database of domain information up to date.

Chen said that DomainTools is currently only able to access GoDaddy’s Whois over port 43 at about 2% of the rate it had previously.

He said that this has been going on for about six months and that the market-leading registrar has been unresponsive to its requests to have previous levels restored.

“By throttling access to the data by 98% they’re defeating the ability of security practitioners to get data on GoDaddy domains,” Chen said. “It’s particularly troublesome because they [GoDaddy] are such a big part of DNS.”

“We have customers who say the quality of GoDaddy data is just degrading across the board, either through direct look-ups or in some of the DomainTools products themselves,” he said.

DomainTools customers include security professionals trying to hunt down the source of attacks and intellectual property interests trying to locate pirates and cybersquatters.

GoDaddy today confirmed to DI that it has been throttling DomainTools’ Whois access, and said that it’s part of ongoing anti-spam measures.

In recent years there’s been an increase in the amount of spam — usually related to web design, hosting, and SEO — sent to recent domain registrants using email addresses harvested from new Whois records.

GoDaddy, as the market-share leader in retail domain sales, takes a tonne of flak from customers who, unaware of standard Whois practice, think the company is selling their personal information to spammers.

This kind of Twitter exchange is fairly common on GoDaddy’s feed:

While GoDaddy is not saying that DomainTools is directly responsible for this kind of activity, throttling its port 43 traffic is one way the company is trying to counter the problem, VP of policy James Bladel told DI tonight.

“Companies like [DomainTools] present a challenge,” he said. “While we may know these folks, we don’t know who their customers are.”

But that’s just a part of the issue. GoDaddy was also concerned about the amount of resources DomainTools was consuming, and its own future legal responsibilities under the European Union’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.

“When [Chen] says they’re down to a fraction or a percentage of what they had previously, well what they had previously was they were updating and archiving Whois almost in real time,” Bladel said. “And that’s not going to fly.”

“That is not only, we feel, not congruent with our responsibilities to our customers’ data, but it’s also, later on down the road, exactly the kind of thing that GDPR and other regulations are designed to stop,” he said.

GDPR is the EU law that, when it fully kicks in in May, gives European citizens much more rights over the sharing and processing of their private data.

Bladel added that DomainTools is still getting more Whois access than other parties using port 43.

“They have a level of access that is much, much higher than what they would normally have as a registrar,” he said, “but much lower than I think they want, because they want to effectively download and keep current the entirety of the Whois database.”

I’m not getting a sense from GoDaddy that it’s likely to backtrack on its changes.

Indeed, the company also today announced that it from January 25 it will start to “mask” key elements of Whois records when queried over port 43.

GoDaddy told high-value customers such as domainers today that port 43 queries will no longer return the registrant’s first name, last name, email address or phone number.

Bulk Whois users such as registrars (and, I assume, DomainTools) that have been white-listed via the “GoDaddy Port43 Process” will continue to receive full records.

Its web-based Whois, which includes a CAPTCHA gateway to prevent scraping, will continue to function as normal.

Bladel said that these changes are NOT related to GDPR, nor to the fact that ICANN said a couple months back that it would not enforce compliance with Whois provisions of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, subject to certain conditions.