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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.

Brandsight starts beta with “large corporations”

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2018, Domain Registrars

New brand management registrar Brandsight says it has started a beta test of its initial service.

Head of marketing Elisa Cooper tells DI the service is being tested by prospective clients at unspecified “large corporations”.

Brandsight Domain Name Management is a portfolio management system for large corporate domain controllers.

The company reckons its service is more streamlined than the competition, leveraging “big data” and modern user interface techniques to make brand managers’ lives easier.

Features include the ability to make sure domains are forwarding to where they’re supposed to. There’s also an industry news feed, according to a press release.

Brandsight was formed last year and staffed by former senior staffers from Fairwinds and MarkMonitor who thought they’d spotted a gap in the market.

ICANN chief to lead talks over blocked .amazon gTLD

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Goran Marby has been asked to help Amazon come to terms with several South American governments over its controversial bid for the .amazon gTLD.

The organization’s board of directors passed a resolution last week accepting the suggestion, which came from the Governmental Advisory Committee. The board said:

The ICANN Board accepts the GAC advice and has asked the ICANN org President and CEO to facilitate negotiations between the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization’s (ACTO) member states and the Amazon corporation

Governments, prominently Peru and Brazil, have strongly objected to .amazon on the grounds that the “Amazon” river and rain-forest region, known locally as “Amazonas” should be a protected geographic term.

Amazon’s applications for .amazon and two Asian-script translations were rejected a few years ago after the GAC sided with its South American members and filed advice objecting to the gTLDs.

A subsequent Independent Review Process panel last year found that ICANN had given far too much deference to the GAC advice, which came with little to no evidence-based justification.

The panel told ICANN to “promptly” take another look at the applications and “make an objective and independent judgment regarding whether there are, in fact, well-founded, merits-based public policy reasons for denying Amazon’s applications”.

Despite this, the .amazon application is still classified as “Will Not Proceed” on ICANN’s web site. That’s basically another way of saying “rejected” or “denied”.

Amazon the company has promised to protect key domains, such as “rainforest.amazon”, if it gets to run the gTLDs. Governments would get to help create a list of reserved, sensitive domains.

It’s also promised to actively support any future bids for .amazonas supported by the governments concerned.

.amazon would be a dot-brand, so only Amazon would be able to register names there.

US and EU call for Whois to stay alive

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2018, Domain Policy

Government officials from both sides of the Atlantic have this week called on ICANN to preserve Whois as it currently is, in the face of incoming EU privacy law, at least for a select few users.

The European Commission wrote to ICANN to ask for a “pragmatic and workable solution” to the apparent conflict between the General Data Protection Regulation and the desire of some folks to continue to access Whois as usual.

Three commissioners said in a letter (pdf) that special consideration should be given to “public interests” including “ensuring cybersecurity and the stability of the internet, preventing and fighting crime, protecting intellectual property and copyright, or enforcing consumer protection measures”.

David Redl, the new head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, echoed these concerns in a speech at the State of the Net conference in Washington DC on Monday.

Redl said that the “preservation of the Whois service” is one of NTIA’s top two priorities at the moment. The other priority is pressing for US interests in the International Telecommunications Union, he said.

Calling Whois “a cornerstone of trust and accountability for the Internet”, Redl said the service “can, and should, retain its essential character while complying with national privacy laws, including the GDPR.”

“It is in the interests of all Internet stakeholders that it does,” he said. “And for anyone here in the US who may be persuaded by arguments calling for drastic change, please know that the US government expects this information to continue to be made easily available through the Whois service.”

He directly referred to the ability of regular internet users to access Whois for consumer protection purposes in his speech.

The European Commission appears to be looking at a more restrictive approach, but it did offer some concrete suggestions as to how GDPR compliance might be achieved.

For example, the commissioners’ letter appears to give tacit approval to the idea of “gated” access to Whois, but called for access by law enforcement to be streamlined and centralized.

It also suggests throttling as a mechanism to reduce abuse of Whois data, and makes it clear that registrants should always be clearly informed how their personal data will be used.

The deadline for GDPR compliance is May this year. That’s when the ability of EU countries to start to levy fines against non-compliant companies, which could run into millions of euros, kicks in.

While ICANN has been criticized by registries and registrars for moving too slowly to give them clarity on how to be GDPR-compliant while also sticking to the Whois provisions of their contracts, its pace has been picking up recently.

Two weeks ago it called for comments on three possible Whois models that could be used from May.

That comment period ended on Monday, and ICANN is expected to publish the model upon which further discussions will be based today.

Research finds homograph attacks on big brands rife

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2018, Domain Tech

Apparent domain name homograph attacks against major brands are a “significant” problem, according to research from Farsight Security.

The company said last week that it scanned for such attacks against 125 well-known brands over the three months to January 10 and found 116,113 domains — almost 1,000 per brand.

Homographs are domains that look like other domains, often indistinguishable from the original. They’re usually used to phish for passwords to bank accounts, retailers, cryptocurrency exchanges, and so on.

They most often use internationalized domain names, mixing together ASCII and non-ASCII characters when displayed in browsers.

To the naked eye, they can look very similar to the original ASCII-only domains, but under the hood they’re actually encoded with Punycode with the xn-- prefix.

Examples highlighted by Farsight include baŋkofamerica.com, amazoṇ.com and fàcebook.com

Displayed as ASCII, those domains are actually xn--bakofamerica-qfc.com, xn--amazo-7l1b.com and xn--fcebook-8va.com.

Farsight gave examples including and excluding the www. subdomain in a blog post last week, but I’m not sure if it double-counted to get to its 116,113-domain total.

As you might imagine, almost all of this abuse is concentrated in .com and other TLDs that were around before 2012, judging by Farsight’s examples. That’s because the big brands are not using new gTLDs for their primary sites yet.

Farsight gave a caveat that it had not generally investigated the ownership of the homograph domains it found. It’s possible some of them are defensive registrations by brands that are already fully aware of the security risk they could present.