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Registrars still not responding to private Whois requests

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2018, Domain Policy

Registrars are still largely ignoring requests for private Whois data, according to a brand protection company working for Facebook.

AppDetex wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to say that only 3% of some 9,000 requests it has made recently have resulted in the delivery of full Whois records.

Almost 60% of these requests were completely ignored, the company claimed, and 0.4% resulted in a request for payment.

You may recall that AppDetex back in July filed 500 Whois requests with registrars on behalf of client Facebook, with which it has a close relationship.

Then, only one registrar complied to AppDetex’s satisfaction.

Company general counsel Ben Milam now tells ICANN that more of its customers (presumably, he means not just Facebook) are using its system for automatically generating Whois requests.

He also says that these requests now contain more information, such as a contact name and number, after criticism from registrars that its demands were far too vague.

AppDetex is also no longer demanding reverse-Whois data — a list of domains owned by the same registrant, something not even possible under the old Whois system — and is limiting each of its requests to a single domain, according to Milam’s letter.

Registrars are still refusing to hand over the information, he wrote, with 11.4% of requests creating responses demanding a legal subpoena or UDRP filing.

The company reckons this behavior is in violation of ICANN’s Whois Temporary Specification.

The Temp Spec says registrars “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”.

The ICANN community has not yet come up with a sustainable solution for third-party access to private Whois. It’s likely to be the hottest topic at ICANN 63 in Barcelona, which kicks off this weekend.

Whois records for gTLD domains are of course, post-GDPR, redacted of all personally identifiable information, which irks big brand owners who feel they need it in order to chase cybersquatters.

Here’s what ICANN’s boss is saying about Whois access now

Kevin Murphy, October 4, 2018, Domain Policy

Should ICANN become the sole source for looking up private domain registrant data? That’s one of the options for the post-GDPR world of Whois currently being mulled over on Waterfront Drive.

ICANN CEO Goran Marby laid out some of ICANN’s current thinking on the future of Whois last week at an occasionally combative meeting in Los Angeles.

One idea would see ICANN act as a centralized gatekeeper for all Whois data. Another could risk ICANN becoming much more tightly controlled by governments.

I’ve listened to the recordings, read the transcripts, chatted to participants, and I’m going to attempt to summarize what I believe is the current state of play.

As regular DI readers know, post-GDPR Whois policy is currently being debated to a tight deadline by an Expedited Policy Development Process working group.

The work has been a tough slog, and there seems to be little hope of the EPDP closing all of its outstanding issues before its first conclusions are due under three weeks from now.

One of the outstanding issues not yet addressed in any depth by the group is the potential creation of a “unified access model” — a standardized way cops, trademark owners, cybersecurity professionals and others could look at the same Whois data they could look at just a few months ago.

While the EPDP has carried on deferring discussion of such a model, ICANN Org has in parallel been beavering away trying to figure out whether it’s even going to be legally possible under the new European privacy law to open up Whois data to the people who want to see it, and it’s come up with some potentially game-changing ideas.

After weeks of conference calls, the EPDP working group — made up of 30-odd volunteers from all sections of the ICANN community — met in LA for three days last week to get down to some intensive face-to-face arguments.

I gather the meeting was somewhat productive, but it was jolted by the publication of an ICANN blog post in which Marby attempted to update the community on ICANN’s latest efforts to get clarity on how GDPR legally interacts with Whois.

Marby wrote that ICANN “wants to understand whether there are opportunities for ICANN, beyond its role as one of the ‘controllers’ with respect to WHOIS or its contractual enforcement role, to be acknowledged under the law as the coordinating authority of the WHOIS system.”

What did ICANN mean by this? While “controller” is a term of art defined in mind-numbing detail by the GDPR, “coordinating authority” is not. So ICANN’s blog post was open to interpretation.

It turns out I was not the only person confused by the post, and on Tuesday afternoon last week somebody from the EPDP team collared Marby in the corridor at ICANN HQ and dragged him into the meeting room to explain himself.

He talked with them for about an hour, but some attendees were still nonplussed — some sounded downright angry — after he left the room.

This is what I gleaned from his words.

No End-Runs

First off, Marby was at pains to point out, repeatedly, that ICANN is not trying to bypass the community’s Whois work.

It’s up to the community — currently the EPDP working group, and in a few weeks the rest of you — to decide whether there should be a unified access model for Whois, he explained.

What ICANN Org is doing is trying to figure out is whether a unified access model would even be legal under GDPR and how it could be implemented if it is legal, he said.

“If the community decides we should have a policy about a unified access model, that’s your decision,” he told the group. “We are trying to figure out the legal avenues if it’s actually possible.”

He talked about this to persons unknown at the European Commission in Brussels last month.

Whatever ICANN comes up with would merely be one input to the community’s work, he said. If it discovers that a unified access model would be totally illegal, it will tell the community as much.

Marby said ICANN is looking for “a legal framework for how can we diminish the contracted parties’ legal responsibility” when it comes to GDPR.

So far, it’s come up with three broad ideas about how this could happen.

The Certification Body Idea

GDPR sections 40 to 43 talk about the concepts of “codes of conduct” and “certification bodies”.

It’s possible that ICANN was referring to the possibility of itself becoming a certification body when it blogged about being a “coordinating authority”. Marby, during the EPDP meeting, unhelpfully used the term “accreditation house”.

These hypothetical entities (as far as I know none yet exist) would be approved by either national data protection authorities or the pan-EU European Data Protection Board to administer certification schemes for companies that broadly fall into the same category of data processing businesses.

It seems to be tailor-made for ICANN (though it wasn’t), which already has accreditation of registries and registrars as one of its primary activities.

But this legal avenue does not appear to be a slam-dunk. ICANN would presumably have to persuade a DPA or two, or the EDPB, that giving third parties managed access to citizens’ private data is a good thing.

You’d think that DPAs would be dead against such an idea, but the EU members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee have put their names to advice stating that Whois should remain accessible under certain circumstances, so it’s not impossible they could see it ICANN’s way.

The C.R.A.P. Idea

Marby’s second idea for taking some of the GDPR burden off the shoulders of contracted parties is to basically make ICANN a proxy, or man-in-the-middle, for Whois queries.

“What would happen if ICANN Org legally is the only place you can ask a question through?” he said. “And the only ones that the contracted parties actually can answer a question to would be ICANN Org? Would that move the legal responsibility away from the contracted parties to ICANN Org?”

In many ways, this is typical domain industry tactics — if there’s a rule you don’t want to follow, pass it off to a proxy.

This model was referred to during the session by EPDP members as the “hub and spoke” or “starfish”. I think the starfish reference might have been a joke.

Marby, in a jocular callback to the “Calzone” and “Cannoli” Whois proposals briefly debated in the community earlier this year, said that this model had a secret ICANN-internal code-name that is “something to do with food”.

Because whenever I’ve tried to coin a phrase in the past it has never stuck, I figure this time I may as well go balls-out and call it the “Cuisine-Related Access Plan” for now, if for no other reason than the acronym will briefly annoy some readers.

Despite the name I’ve given it, I don’t necessarily dislike the idea.

It seems to be inspired by, or at least informed by, side-channel communications between Marby and the Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency, which are both no doubt mightily pissed off that the EPDP has so far proven surprisingly resilient to their attempts to get Whois access into the policy discussions as early as possible.

Two months ago, a few influential IP lawyers proposed to Marby (pdf) a centralized Whois model in which registrars collect data from registrants then pass it off to ICANN, which would be responsible for deciding who gets to see it.

Forget “thin” versus “thick” Whois — this one would be positively, arguably dangerously, obese. Contracted parties would be relegated to “processors” of private data under GDPR, with ICANN the sole “controller”.

Benefits of this would include, these lawyers said, reducing contracted parties’ exposure to GDPR.

It’s pretty obvious why the IP lobby would prefer this — ICANN is generally much more amenable to its demands than your typical registry or registrar, and it would very probably be easier to squeeze data out of ICANN.

While Marby specifically acknowledged that ICANN has taken this suggestion as one of its inputs — and has run it by the DPAs — he stopped well short of fully endorsing it during last week’s meeting in LA.

He seemed to instead describe a system whereby ICANN acts as the gatekeeper to the data, but the data is still stored and controlled at the registry or registrar, saying: “We open a window for access to the data so the data is still at the contracted parties because they use that data for other reasons as well”.

The Insane Idea

The third option, which Marby seemed to characterize as the least “sane” of the three, would be to have Whois access recognized by law as a public interest, enabling the Whois ecosystem to basically ignore GDPR.

Remember, back on on GDPR Day, I told you about how the .dk ccTLD registry is carrying on publishing Whois as normal because a Danish law specifically forces it to?

Marby’s third option seems to be a little along those lines. He specifically referred to Denmark and Finland (which appears to have a similar rule in place) during the LA session.

If I understand correctly, it seems there’d have to be some kind of “legal action” in the EU — either legislation in a member state, or perhaps something a little less weighty — that specifically permitted or mandated the publication of otherwise private Whois data in gTLD domains.

Marby offered trademark databases and telephone directories as examples of data sets that appear to be exempt from GDPR protection due to preexisting legislation.

One problem with this third idea, some say, is that it could bring ICANN policy under the direct jurisdiction of a single nation state, something that it had with the US government for the best part of two decades and fought hard to shake off.

If ICANN was given carte blanche to evade GDPR by a piece of legislation in, say, Lithuania, would not ICANN and its global stakeholders forever be slaves to the whims of the Lithuanian legislature?

And what if that US bill granting IP interests their Whois wet dream passes onto the statute books and ICANN finds itself trapped in a jurisdictional clusterfuck?

Oh, my.

Fatuous Conclusion For The Lovely People Who Generously Bothered To Read To The End

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of any of this, but to be honest I’m not convinced the lawyers do either.

If you think you do, call me. I want to hear from you. I’m “domainincite” on Skype. Cheers.

Donuts says DPML now covers “millions” of trademark variants as price rockets again

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2018, Domain Registrars

Donuts has added more than a third to the price of its Domain Protected Marks List service, as it adds a new feature it says vastly increases the number of domains trademark owners can block.

The company has added homograph attack protection to DPML, so trademark-owning worrywarts can block variations of their brand that contain confusing non-Latin characters in addition to all the domain variants DPML already takes out of the available pool.

An example of a homograph, offered by Donuts, would be the domain xn--ggle-0nda.com, which can display as “gοοgle.com” and which contains two Cyrillic o-looking characters but is pretty much indistinguishable from “google.com”.

Donuts reckons this could mean “millions” of domains could be blocked, potentially preventing all kinds of phishing attacks, but one suspects the actual number per customer rather depends on how many potentially confusable Latin characters appear in the brands they want to protect.

DPML is a block service that prevents others from registering domains matching or closely matching customers’ trademarks. Previous additions to the service have included typo protection.

The new feature supports Cyrillic and Greek scripts, the two that Donuts says most homograph attacks use.

The company explained it to its registrars like this:

The Donuts system will analyze the content of each SLD identified in a DPML subscription, breaking it down to its individual characters. Each character is then “spun” against Unicode’s list of confusable characters and replaced with all viable IDN “glyphs” supported by Donuts TLDs. This spinning results in potentially millions of IDN permutations of a brand’s trademark which may be considered easily confusable to an end user. Each permutation is then blocked (removed from generally available inventory) just like other DPML labels, meaning it can only be registered via an “Override” by a party holding a trademark on the same label.

While this feature comes at no additional cost, Donuts is increasing its prices from January 1, the second big increase since DPML went live five years ago.

Donuts declined to disclose its wholesale price when asked, but I’ve seen registrars today disclose new pricing of $6,000 to $6,600 for a five-year block.

That compares to retail pricing in the $2,500 to $3,000 range back in 2013.

Hexonet said it will now charge its top-flight resellers $6,426 per create, compared to the $4,400 it started charging when DPML prices last went up at the start of last year. OpenProvider has also added two grand to its prices.

Donuts said the price increase also reflects the growth of its portfolio of gTLDs over the last few years. It now has 241, 25% more than at the last price increase.

Com Laude acquires Scottish rival

Kevin Murphy, September 11, 2018, Domain Registrars

Brand protection registrar Com Laude has picked up smaller competitor Demys for an undisclosed sum.

Demys, based in Edinburgh, is an ICANN-accredited registrar that specializes in the UK automotive, retail/leisure, media and consumer goods sectors.

It also acts as the registry manager and exclusive registrar for .bentley, the lightly-used dot-brand of luxury car-maker Bentley Motors.

It had around 12,000 gTLD domains under management at the last count, about 7,200 of which were in .com.

It’s about an eighth the size of Com Laude in terms of gTLD domains under management.

Demys has a very light footprint in new gTLDs, with local geo .scot — where it is the largest corporate registrar and fifth-largest registrar overall — being a notable exception.

London-based Com Laude said it was also interested in the company for its brand monitoring services and dispute resolution work.

Two of Demys’ top guys act as arbitrators for UDRP and .uk’s Dispute Resolution Service.

Is the new Whois policy group already doomed to fail?

Kevin Murphy, July 24, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization has set itself extremely aggressive, some might say impossible, targets for its emergency Whois policy work.

The GNSO Council on Thursday approved the charter for a new working group that will attempt to come up with a consensus policy for how to amend the Whois system in light of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

But the vote was not unanimous — three of the six Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group councilors abstained largely because they think intellectual property interests have managed to capture the discussion before it has begun.

The three abstentions were independent consultant Ayden Ferdeline, cybersecurity policy researcher Tatiana Tropina, and privacy consultant Stephanie Perrin.

Tropina said during the Thursday meeting: “I cannot vote ‘yes’ for a document that in my opinion has parts that are not properly worded and, instead of setting the scope of the EPDP [Expedited Policy Development Process] work, set up multiple possibilities to get the work sidetracked.”

She and Ferdeline pointed specifically to section J of the approved charter (pdf), which addresses “reasonable access” to non-public Whois data.

This is the part of the policy work that will decide whether, and to what extent, entities such as trademark owners and cybersecurity researchers will be able to peek behind the curtain of post-GDPR personal data redactions and see who actually owns domain names.

There are several “gating” questions that the working group must answer before it gets to J, however, such as: what data should be collected by registrars, how data transfer to registries should be handled, and are the reasons for this data to be collected all valid?

But when it comes to section J, the abstaining NCSG councilors reckon that the Intellectual Property Community has managed to sneak in the notion that its members should get access to private data as a fait accompli. Section J reads in part:

What framework(s) for disclosure could be used to address (i) issues involving abuse of domain name registrations, including but not limited to consumer protection, investigation of cybercrime, DNS abuse and intellectual property protection, (ii) addressing appropriate law enforcement needs, and (iii) provide access to registration data based on legitimate interests not outweighed by the fundamental rights of relevant data subjects?

Ferdeline said in his abstention:

I believe that Section J includes, first and foremost, questions that unnecessarily expand the scope of this EPDP and put perceived answers — rather than genuine, open ended questions — into this important document. Overall I think this section of the charter’s scope is unnecessary and will not allow the EPDP team to complete their work in a timely manner.

Tropina said J “poses the questions that, first of all, imply by default that issues related to intellectual property protection and consumer protection require the disclosure of personal data”, adding that she was bewildered that IP interests had been lumped in with security concerns:

This wording fails me: as I am criminal lawyer working in the field of frameworks for cybercrime investigation, I do not see why cybercrime investigations are separated from law enforcement needs and go to the same basket with intellectual property protection as they are on a completely different level of legitimate demands

In short, the newly approved EPDP charter has been framed in such a way as to make discussions extremely fractious from the outset, pitting privacy interests against those of the trademark lobby on some of the most divisive wedge issues.

This is problematic given that the working group has an extremely aggressive schedule — its members have not yet even been named and yet it expects to produce its Initial Report shortly after ICANN 63, which ends October 25 this year.

It’s an absurdly short space of time to resolve questions that have dogged ICANN for almost two decades.

Will this pressure to come to agreement against the clock work in favor of the trademark community, or will it doom the policy-making process to deadlock?

Attempting to steer the WG through this minefield will be Kurt Pritz, who was confirmed by the Council as its neutral chair on Thursday, as DI first reported a week ago.

The make-up of the group has also proved contentious.

While it is a GNSO process that would lead to a Consensus Policy binding on all gTLD registries and registrars, the decision has been made to bring in voices from other areas of the community, such as the Country Code Names Supporting Organization, which will not be directly affected by the resulting policy.

There will be 29 members in total, not counting the non-voting chair.

The GNSO gets 18 of these seats at the table, comprising: three registries, three registrars, two IPC members, two ISPs, two Business Constituency members, six NCSG members (which, I imagine would be split between the privacy-focused NCUC and more IP-friendly NPOC).

But also joining the group on an equal footing will be two members of the Root Server System Advisory Committee (I’ve no idea why), two from the Security and Stability Advisory Committee, two from the ccNSO, two from the At-Large Advisory Committee and three from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The actual individuals filling these seats will be named by their respective constituencies in the next few days, ahead of the first WG meeting July 30.

It has been said that these people could expect to devote north of 30 hours a week (unpaid of course, though any necessary travel will be comp’d) to the discussions.