A British Member of Parliament has been forced to deny he was behind the registration of several domain names promoting him as a future leader of the Labour party.
Clive Lewis, until recently a member of the shadow cabinet, told the Guardian yesterday that he did not register the batch of domains, which included cliveforleader.org.uk, cliveforlabour.org.uk and their matching .org, .uk and .co.uk domains.
“None of this is true: I haven’t done this,” he told the paper, following a Huffington Post article revealing the names had been registered June 29 last year, just a couple of days after he was appointed shadow defence secretary.
Lewis resigned from the shadow cabinet three weeks ago after refusing to vote in favor of triggering the Article 50 process that will take the UK out of the European Union.
The Labour Party has been dogged by stories about potential leadership challenges ever since Jeremy Corbyn — popular among grassroots party members, unpopular with voters — took over.
Questions about Corbyn’s leadership reemerged last week after a disastrous by-election defeat for the party.
The domains were taken as an indication that Lewis had been plotting a coup for many months, which he has denied.
The Whois records do not support a conclusion one way or another.
Under Nominet rules, individuals are allowed to keep their phone number, postal and email addresses out of Whois if the domains are to be used for non-commercial purposes, a right the registrant of the names in question chose to exercise.
Public Whois records show the .uk names registered to “Clive Lewis”, but contain no contact information.
They do contain the intriguing statement “Nominet was able to match the registrant’s name and address against a 3rd party data source on 29-Jun-2016”, a standard notice under Nominet’s Whois validation program.
But Nominet does not validate the identity of registrants, nor does it attempt to link the registrant’s name to their purported address.
The statement in the Whois records translates merely that Nominet was able to discover that a person called Clive Lewis exists somewhere in the world, and that the postal address given is a real address.
The .org and .com domains, registered the same day by the same registrar, use a Whois privacy service and contain no information about the registrant whatsoever.
Lewis himself suspects the batch of names may have been registered by a political opponent in order to force him to deny that he registered them, noting that fellow MP Lisa Nandy had a similar experience last July.
His initial statement to HuffPo, on which he reportedly declined to elaborate, was:
A lesson from LBJ [US President Lyndon B Johnson] in how to smash an opponent. Legend has it that LBJ, in one of his early congressional campaigns, told one of his aides to spread the story that Johnson’s opponent f*cked pigs. The aide responded: ‘Christ, Lyndon, we can’t call the guy a pigf*cker. It isn’t true.’ To which LBJ supposedly replied: ‘Of course it ain’t true, but I want to make the son-of-a-bitch deny it.’
Since then, along with his denial to the Guardian, he’s told his local Norwich newspaper that he’s tasked his lawyers with finding out who registered the names.
“I have instructed a solicitor to go away and look at this. They can try and make sure we find the identity, the IP address and the payment details,” he told the Eastern Daily Press.
Problems validating the addresses of .uk domain registrants, which caused one registrar to dump the TLD entirely, are broader than I reported yesterday.
Cronon, which does business as Strato, announced last week that it has stopped selling .uk domain names because in more than a third of cases Nominet, the registry, is unable to validate the Whois data.
In many cases the domain is subsequently suspended, causing customer support headaches.
It now transpires that the problems are not limited to .uk second-level names, are not limited to UK registrants, and are not caused primarily by mailing address validation failures.
Michael Shohat, head of registrar services at Cronon, got in touch last night to clarify that most of its affected customers are in fact from its native Germany or from the Netherlands.
All of the affected names are .co.uk names, not .uk SLDs, he added.
And the validation is failing in the large majority of cases not due to Nominet’s inability to validate a mailing address, but rather its inability to validate the identity of the registrant.
“This is where the verification is failing. The database they are using can’t find many of our registrants’ company names,” Shohat said.
“So 30% of our registrations were being put on hold, almost all of them from [Germany] and [the Netherlands], and 90% of them because of the company name. We checked lots of them and in every single case the name of the company was correct, and the address as well,” he said.
Michele Neylon of the ICANN Registrar Stakeholders Group said that Cronon is not the only registrar to have been affected by these issues. Blacknight Solutions, the registrar Neylon runs, has been complaining about the problem since May.
According to Neylon, the Nominet policy causing the issue is its data quality policy, which covers all .uk and .co.uk (etc) names.
The policy itself is pretty vague — Nominet basically says it will work with each individual registrar to determine a baseline of what can be considered a “minimum proportion of valid data”, given the geographic makeup of the registrar’s customer base.
Domains that fail to meet these criteria have a “Data Quality Lock” imposed — essentially a suspension of the domain’s ability to resolve.
Earlier this year, Nominet did backtrack on plans to implement an automatic cancellation of the names after 30 days of non-compliance, following feedback from its registrars.
“It’s disappointing that Cronon have taken this step; we hope they will consider working with us to find a way to move forward,” a Nominet spokesperson added.
She said that the registry has over recent years moved to “more proactive enforcement” of Whois accuracy. She pointed out that Nominet takes on the “lion’s share of the work”, reducing the burden on registrars.
“However, our solution does not include non-UK data sets to cross-reference with, so it is possible that some false positives occur,” she said. “Registrars with a large non-UK registrant bases, who are not accredited channel partners, would be affected more than others.”
An Accredited Channel Partner is the top tier of the three Nominet offers to registrars. It has additional data validation requirements but additional benefits.
While .co.uk domains are not limited to UK-based registrants, all .uk SLD registrants do need to have a UK mailing address in their Whois for legal service.
The company’s inability to validate many non-UK business identities seems to mean .co.uk could also slowly become a UK-only space by the back door.
German registrar Cronon, which retails domains under the Strato brand, has stopped carrying .uk domains due to what it says are onerous Whois validation rules.
In a blog post, company spokesperson Christina Witt said that over one third of all .uk sales the registrar has been making are failing Nominet’s registry-end validation checks, which she said are “buggy”.
With the introduction of direct second-level registration under .uk, Nominet introduced a new requirement that all new domains must have a UK address in the Whois for legal service, even if the registrant is based overseas.
According to its web site, Nominet checks registrant addresses against the Royal Mail Postcode Address file, which contains over 29 million UK addresses, and does a confidence-based match.
If attempts to match the supplied address with a UK address in this file prove fruitless, and after outreach to the registrant, Nominet suspends the domain 30 days after registration and eventually deletes it.
It’s this policy of terminating domains that has caused Strato to despair and stop accepting new .uk registrations.
“Databases of street directories or company registers are often inaccurate and out of date,” Witt wrote (translated from the original German). “The result: addresses that are not wrong, in fact, are be found to be invalid.”
Nominet is throwing back over a third of all .uk names registered via Strato, according to the blog post, creating a customer support nightmare.
Its affected registrants are also confused about the verification emails they receive from Nominet, a foreign company of which they have often never heard, Witt wrote.
I don’t know how many .uk names the registrar has under management, but it’s reasonably large in the gTLD space, with roughly 650,000 domains under management at the last count.
If Strato’s claim that Nominet is rejecting a third of valid addresses (and how Strato could know they’re valid is open to question), that’s quite a scary statistic.
Nominet seems to be using an address database, from the Royal Mail, which is about as close to definitive as it gets. And it’s only verifying addresses from a single country.
I shudder to imagine what the false negative rate would be like for a gTLD registrar compelled to validate addresses across 200-odd countries and territories.
The latest version of the ICANN Registrar Accreditation Agreement requires registrars to partially validate addresses, such as checking whether the street and postal code exist in the given city, but there’s no requirement for domains to be suspended if these checks fail.
[UPDATE: Thanks to Michele Neylon of the Registrars Stakeholder Group for the reminder that this RAA requirement hasn’t actually come into force yet, and won’t until the RrSG and ICANN come to terms on its technical and commercial feasibility.]
Where the 2013 RAA does require suspension is when the registrant fails to verify their email address (or, less commonly, phone number), which as we’ve seen over the last year leads to hundreds of thousands of names being yanked for no good reason.
If Strato’s story about .uk is correct and its experience shared by other registrars, I expect that will become and important data point the next time law enforcement or other interests push for even stricter Whois rules in the ICANN world.