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ICANN teases prices for private Whois lookups

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN has started to put some flesh on the bones of the forthcoming (?) SSAD system for accessing private Whois records, including teasing some baseline pricing.

During a session at ICANN 72 last week, staffers said responses to recent requests for information put the cost of having an identity verified as an SSAD user at about $10 to $20.

Those are vendor wholesale prices, however, covering the cost of looking at a government-issue ID and making sure it’s legit, and do not include the extra administration and cost-recovery charges that ICANN plans to place on top.

The verification fee would have to be renewed every two years under ICANN’s proposal, though the verification vendors are apparently pushing for annual renewals.

The fee also would not include the likely per-query charge that users will have to pay to request the true personal data behind a redacted Whois record.

It’s not currently anticipated that any money would flow to registrars, CEO Göran Marby said.

SSAD, the Standardized System for Access and Disclosure, is currently undergoing Operational Design Phase work in ICANN, with monthly webinar updates for the community.

ICANN expects to reveal more pricing details on the December webinar, staffers said.

ICANN adds another six months to Whois reform roadmap

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN says that its preparatory work for possible Whois reforms will take another six months.

The Operational Design Phase for the System for Standardized Access and Disclosure will now conclude “by the end of February 2022”, ICANN said this week.

That’s after the Org missed its original September deadline after six months of work.

ICANN program manager Diana Middleton said at ICANN 72 last week that ODP had been delayed by various factors including surveys taking longer than expected and throwing up more questions than they answered.

A survey of Governmental Advisory Committee members due September 17 was extended until the end of October.

But she added that ICANN intends to throw its first draft of the output — an Operational Design Assessment — at its technical writers by the end of the month, with a document going before the board of directors in early February.

SSAD is the proposed system that would funnel requests for private Whois data through ICANN, with a new veneer of red tape for those wishing to access such data.

The ODP is ICANN’s brand-new process for deciding how it could be implemented, how much it would cost, and indeed whether it’s worthwhile implementing it at all.

It’s also being used to prepare for the next round of new gTLDs, with a 13-month initial deadline.

The longer the current ODP runs, the greater the cost to the eventual SSAD user.

Whois rule changes that nobody likes get approved anyway

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2021, Domain Services

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization Council has approved a handful of changes to Whois policy, despite the fact that pretty much nobody was fully on-board with the proposals and how they were made.

The new recommendations call for a new field in Whois records to flag up whether the registrant is a private individual, whose privacy is protected by law, or a legal entity like a company, which have no privacy rights.

But the field will be optional, with no obligation for registries or registrars to use it in their Whois services, which has angered intellectual property interests, governments and others.

The working group that came up with the recommendations also declined to find that Whois records should come with an anonymized registrant email address as standard. This absence of change was also adopted by the Council, causing more disappointment.

In short, nothing much is happening to Whois records for the foreseeable future as a result of these policy changes.

But the process to arrive at this conclusion has highlighted not just the deep divisions in the ICANN community but also, some argue, deficiencies in the ICANN process itself.

The Expedited Policy Development Process working group that has since 2018 been looking at the interaction between Whois and privacy protection law, primarily the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, had been asked two final questions earlier this year, to wrap up its long-running work.

First, should registrars and registries be forced to distinguish between legal and natural persons when deciding what data to publish in Whois?

Second, should there be a registrant-based or registration-based anonymized email published in Whois to help people contact domain owners and/or correlate ownership across records?

The answer on both counts was that it’s up to the registry or registrar to decide.

On legal versus natural, the EPDP decided that ICANN should work with the technical community to create a new field in the Whois standard (RDAP), but that there should be no obligation for the industry to use it.

On anonymized email addresses, the working group recommendations were even hand-wavier — they merely refer the industry to some legal advice on how to implement such a system in a GDPR-compliant way.

While this phase of the EPDP’s work was super-fast by ICANN standards (taking about nine months) and piss-weak with its output, it nevertheless attracted a whole lot of dissent.

While its tasks appeared straightforward to outsiders, it nevertheless appears to have inherited the simmering tensions and entrenched positions of earlier phases and turned out to be one of the most divisive and fractious working groups in the modern ICANN period.

Almost every group involved in the work submitted a minority statement expressing either their displeasure with the outcome, or with the process used to arrive at it, or both. Even some of the largely positive statements reek of sarcasm and resentment.

EPDP chair Keith Drazek went to the extent of saying that the minority statements should be read as part and parcel of the group’s Final Report, saying “some groups felt that the work did not go as far as needed, or did not include sufficient detail, while other groups felt that certain recommendations were not appropriate or necessary”.

This Final Report constitutes a compromise that is the maximum that could be achieved by the group at this time under our currently allocated time and scope, and it should not be read as delivering results that were fully satisfactory to everyone.

The appears to be an understatement.

The Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency were both the angriest, as you might expect. They wanted to be able to get more data on legal persons, and to be able to reverse-engineer domain portfolios using anonymous registrant-baed email addresses, and they won’t be able to do either.

The Governmental Advisory Committee and Security and Stability Advisory Committee both expressed positions in line with the IPC/BC, dismayed that no enforceable contract language will emerge from this process.

Councilor Marie Pattullo of the BC said during the GNSO Council vote last Wednesday that the work “exceeds what is necessary to protect registrant data” and that the EPDP failed to “preserve the WHOIS database to the greatest extent possible”.

The “optional differentiation between legal and natural persons is inadequate”, she said, resulting in “a significant number of records being needlessly redacted or otherwise being made unavailable”. The approved policies contain “no real policy and places no enforceable obligations on contracted parties”, she said.

IPC councilor John McElwaine called the EPDP “unfinished work” because the working group failed to reach a consensus on the legal/natural question. The IPC minority statement had said:

Requiring ICANN to coordinate the technical community in the creation of a data element which contracted parties are free to ignore altogether falls far short of “resolving” the legal vs. natural issue. And failing to require differentiation of personal and non-personal data fails to meet the overarching goal of the EPDP to “preserve the WHOIS database to the greatest extent possible” while complying with privacy law.

But McElwaine conceded that “a minority of IPC members did favor these outputs as being minor, incremental changes that are better than nothing”.

The BC and IPC both voted against the proposals, but that was not enough to kill them. They would have needed support from at least one councilor on the the other side of the GNSO’s Non-Contracted Parties House, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, and that hand was not raised.

While the NCSG voted “aye”, and seemed generally fine with the outcome, it wasn’t happy with the process, and had some stern words for its opponents. It said in its minority statement:

The process for this EPDP has been unnecessarily long and painful, however, and does not reflect an appreciation for ICANN’s responsibility to comply with data protection law but rather the difficulty in getting many stakeholders to embrace the concept of respect for registrants’ rights…

With respect to the precise issues addressed in this report, we have stressed throughout this EPDP, and in a previous PDP on privacy proxy services, that the distinction between legal and natural is not a useful distinction to make, when deciding about the need to protect data in the RDS. It was, as we have reiterated many times, the wrong question to ask, because many workers employed by a legal person or company have privacy rights with respect to the disclosure of their personal information and contact data. The legal person does not have privacy rights, but people do.

While welcoming the result, the Registrars Stakeholder Group had similar concerns about the process, accusing its opponents of trying to impose additional legal risks on contracted parties. Its minority statement says:

it is disappointing that achieving this result was the product of significant struggle. Throughout the work on this Phase, the WG revisited issues repeatedly without adding anything substantially new to the discussion, and discussed topics which were out of scope. Perhaps most importantly, the WG was on many occasions uninterested in or unconcerned with the legal and financial risks that some proposed obligations would create for contracted parties in varying jurisdictions or of differing business models, or the risks to registrants themselves.

The Registries Stakeholder Group drilled down even more on the “out of scope” issue, saying the recommendation to create a new legal vs natural field in Whois went beyond what the working group had been tasked with.

They disagreed with, and indeed challenged, Drazek’s decision that the discussion was in-scope, but reluctantly went ahead and voted on the proposals in Council in order to finally draw a line under the whole issue.

The question of whether the legal vs natural question has been in fact been resolved seems to be an ongoing point of conflict, with the RySG, RrSG and NCSG saying it’s finally time to put the matter to bed and the IPC and BC insisting that consensus has not yet been reached.

The RySG wrote that it is “well past time to consider the issue closed” and that the EPDP had produced a “valuable and acceptable outcome”, adding:

The RySG is concerned that some have suggested this issue is not resolved. This question has been discussed in three separate phases of the EPDP and the result each time has been that Contracted Parties may differentiate but are not required to do so. This clearly demonstrates that this matter has been addressed appropriately and consistently. A perception that this work is somehow unresolved could be detrimental to the ICANN community and seen as undermining the effectiveness of the multistakeholder model.

Conversely, the BC said the report “represents an unfortunate failure of the multistakeholder process” adding that “we believe the record should state that consensus opinion did not and still does not exist”.

The IPC noted “a troubling trend in multistakeholder policy development”, saying in a clear swipe at the contracted parties that “little success is possible when some stakeholders are only willing to act exclusively in their own interests with little regard for compromise in the interest of the greater good.”

So, depending on who you believe, either the multistakeholder process is captured and controlled by intransigent contracted parties, or it’s unduly influenced by those who want to go ultra vires to interfere with the business of selling domains in order to violate registrant privacy.

And in either case the multistakeholder model is at risk — either “agree to disagree” counts as a consensus position, or it’s an invitation for an infinite series of future policy debates.

Business as usual at the GNSO, in other words.

Almost no security researchers asking for Whois records – Tucows

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2021, Domain Registrars

Security researchers are not asking for private Whois records in anywhere near the numbers you might have been led to believe, according to data released this week by Tucows.

The registrar revealed that it received just one request from the security community between September 2020 and the end of August 2021. That’s not even 1% of the total.

Over the same period, the “commercial litigators” category, presumably including intellectual property interests going after suspected cybersquatters, were behind 87% of requests.

About 9% of requests came from law enforcement agencies, Tucows said.

The company said that it disclosed private registrant data in 74% of cases. It denied the requests in 9% of cases. Other requests were incomplete or abandoned.

Tucows has been offering a Tiered Access service for its Whois records since the General Data Protection Regulation came into effect in May 2018. It has received 4,478 requests since then.

Price of Whois lookups could rise as ICANN delays reform work

Kevin Murphy, September 28, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN has delayed the conclusion of work on Whois reform, potentially increasing the cost of requesting domain registration data in future.

Back in March, its board of directors gave the Org six months to complete the Operational Design Phase of the so-called SSAD, or System for Standardized Access and Disclosure, but that deadline passed this week.

It appears that ICANN is not even close to concluding its ODP work. No new deadline has been announced, but ICANN intends to talk to the community at ICANN 72 next month.

SSAD is a proposal created by the community and approved — not without controversy — by the GNSO Council. It would essentially create a centralized clearinghouse for law enforcement and intellectual property interests to request private registrant data from registries and registrars.

The ODP is a new process, never before used, whereby ICANN clarifies the community’s intentions and attempts to translate policy recommendations into a roadmap that is feasible and cost-effective to implement.

It seems this process suffered some teething troubles, which are partially responsible for the delays.

But it also appears that ICANN is having a hard time finding potential service provider partners capable of building and operating SSAD all by themselves, raising the prospect of a more complex and expensive piecemeal solution.

It had 17 responses to a recent RFI, but no respondent said it could cover all the bases.

The key sticking point, described by some as a “chicken and egg” problem, is figuring out how many people are likely to use SSAD and how often. If the system is too expensive or fails to deliver results, it will be used less. If it works like a charm and is cost-effective, query volumes would go up.

So ICANN is challenged to gaze into its crystal ball and find a sweet spot, balancing cost, functionality and usage, if SSAD is to be a success. So far, its estimates for usage range from 25,000 users making 100,000 requests a year to 3 million users making 12 million requests.

That’s how far away from concluding its work ICANN is.

Confounding matters, the longer ICANN drags its feet on the ODP phase, the more expensive SSAD is likely to be for the end users who will ultimately wind up paying for it.

In a webinar last week, CEO Göran Marby said that the SSAD project is meant to recover its own costs. Whatever ICANN is spending on the ODP right now is expected to be recouped from access fees when SSAD goes live.

“This should not cost ICANN Org anything,” he said. “The costs should be carried by the user.”

ICANN is working on the assumption that SSAD will eventually happen, but if the ODP decides not to implement SSAD, ICANN will have to eat the costs, he indicated.

When the ICANN board approved this ODP, it did not specify how much money was being allocated to the project.

A second and separate ODP, looking at the next round of new gTLDs, was earlier this month given $9 million to conduct an anticipated 10-month project.

More privacy headaches? UK to withdraw from GDPR

Kevin Murphy, August 26, 2021, Domain Policy

The UK is to craft its own privacy legislation, after Brexit enabled it to extricate itself from the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, potentially causing headaches for domain name companies.

While it’s still in the very early pre-consultation stages, the government announced today that it wants “to make the country’s data regime even more ambitious, pro-growth and innovation-friendly, while still being underpinned by secure and trustworthy privacy standards.”

The country looks to be heading to a new privacy regime that registries and registrars doing business there will have to comply with, particular with regard to Whois services, in other words.

But it might not be too bad — the government is talking up plans to make “data adequacy” deals with third countries to enable the easy, legal transfer of private data across borders, which is always useful in the context of domain names.

While the UK is no longer in the EU, most EU laws including GDPR were grandfathered in and are still in effect.

Will you use SSAD for Whois queries?

Kevin Murphy, July 9, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN is pinging the community for feedback on proposed Whois reforms that would change how people request access to private registrant data.

The fundamental question is: given everything you know about the proposed System for Standardized Access and Disclosure (SSAD), how likely are you to actually use it?

The SSAD idea was dreamed up by a community working group as the key component of ICANN’s response to privacy laws such as GDPR, and was then approved by the Generic Names Supporting Organization.

But it’s been criticized for not going far enough to grant Whois access to the likes of trademark lawyers, law enforcement and security researchers. Some have called it a glorified ticketing system that will cost far more than the value it provides.

Before the policy is approved by ICANN’s board, it’s going through a new procedure called the ODP, for Operational Design Phase, in which ICANN staff, in coordination with the community, attempt to figure out whether SSAD would be cost-effective, or even implementable.

The questionnaire released today will be an input to the ODP. ICANN says it “will play a critical role in assessing the feasibility and associated risks, costs, and resources required in the potential deployment of SSAD.”

There’s only eight questions, and they mostly relate to the volume of private data requests submitted currently, how often SSAD is expected to be used, and what the barriers to use would be.

ICANN said it’s asking similar questions of registries and registrars directly.

There’s a clear incentive here for the IP and security factions within ICANN to low-ball the amount of usage they reckon SSAD will get, whether that’s their true belief or not, if they want ICANN to strangle the system in its crib.

It’s perhaps noteworthy that the potential user groups the questionnaire identifies do not include domain investors nor the media, both of which have perfectly non-nefarious reasons for wanting greater access to Whois data. This is likely because these communities were not represented on the SSAD working group.

You can find the questionnaire over here. You have until July 22.

More non-rules proposed for Whois privacy

Kevin Murphy, June 4, 2021, Domain Policy

An ICANN working group has come up with some extra policy proposals for how registries and registrars handle Whois records, but they’re going to be entirely optional.

The ongoing Expedited Policy Development Process team has come up with a document answering two questions: whether registrars should differentiate between people and companies, and whether there should be a system of uniform, anonymized email addresses published in Whois records.

The answer to both questions is a firm “Maybe”.

The EPDP working group seems to have been split along the usual party lines when it comes to both, and has recommended that contracted parties should get to choose whether they adopt either practice.

Under privacy laws, chiefly GDPR, protections only extend to data on natural persons — people — and not to legal persons such as companies, non-profits and other amorphous entities.

Legally, registries and registrars are not obliged to fully redact the Whois records of domains belonging to companies, but many do anyway because it’s easier than putting systems in place to differentiate the two types of registrant.

There’s also the issue that, even if the owner of the domain is a company, the contact information may belong to a named, identifiable person who is protected by GDPR. So ICANN’s contracted parties may reduce their potential liability by redacting everything, no matter what type of entity the domain belongs to.

The EPDP’s has decided to stick to the status quo it agreed to in an earlier round of policy talks: “Registrars and Registry Operators are permitted to differentiate between registrations of legal and natural persons, but are not obligated to do so”.

Contracted parties will get the option to ask their registrants if they’re a natural person (yes/no/not saying) and capture that data, but they’ll have to redact the answer from public Whois output.

They’d have to “clearly communicate” to their customers the fact that their data will be treated differently depending on the choice they make.

On the second question, related to whether a system standardized, published, anonymized email addresses is feasible or desirable, the EPDP is also avoiding any radical changes:

The EPDP Team recognizes that it may be technically feasible to have a registrant-based email contact or a registration-based email contact. Certain stakeholders see risks and other concerns that prevent the EPDP Team from making a recommendation to require Contracted Parties to make a registrant-based or registration-based email address publicly available at this point in time.

Again, the working group is giving registries and registrars the option to implement such systems or not.

The benefit (or drawback, depending on your perspective) of giving each registrant a single anonymous email address that is published in all their Whois records is that it makes it rather easy to reverse-engineer that registrant’s entire portfolio.

If you’re a political insider running a whistle-blower blog, a bar owner who also moderates a forum for closeted gays in a repressive regime, or a domain name news blogger running a furry porn site on the side, you might not want your whole collection of domains to be easily doxxed.

But if you’re a trademark lawyer chasing cybersquatters or a security researcher tracking spammers, being able to take action against a ne’er-do-well’s entire portfolio at once could be hugely useful.

So the EPDP working group proposes to leave it up to individual registries and registrars to decide whether to implement such a system, basically telling these companies to talk to their lawyers.

The EPDP Team recommends that Contracted Parties who choose to publish a registrant- or registration-based email address in the publicly accessible RDDS should ensure appropriate safeguards for the data subject in line with relevant guidance on anonymization techniques provided by their data protection authorities and the appended legal guidance in this recommendation

An appendix to the recommendations, compiled by the law firm Bird & Bird, says there’s “a high likelihood that the publication or automated disclosure of such email addresses would be considered to be the processing of personal data”.

The EPDP recommendations are now open for public comment until July 19, and could become binding if they make it through the rest of the ICANN policy development system.

Pheenix goes AWOL, gets canned

Drop-catch registrar Pheenix has had its registrar contract terminated by ICANN after apparently going AWOL.

ICANN has been chasing the company for breaches related to Whois and access to registrant data since October 2019, but hasn’t heard a peep out of the outfit for a year.

As I noted when ICANN published its first breach notice last month, ICANN hasn’t been able to connect with Pheenix via email or phone or fax since May 2020.

Since then, it’s also discovered that the company is no longer at the mailing address it has on record.

The registrar has not added any domain names since April 2020. It seems clear it no longer has any interest in doing, or perhaps ability to do, business.

The de-accredited registrar bulk transfer process will now kick in. ICANN will select a registrar to move Pheenix’s 6,000-odd domains to.

Pheenix once specialized in drop-catching, and had over 500 ICANN-accredited registrars to its name. Almost all of those were ditched in November 2017.

ICANN threatens to seize gTLD after Whois downtime

Kevin Murphy, April 12, 2021, Domain Registries

Are we about to see our next gTLD registry implosion?

ICANN has whacked the company behind .gdn with a breach notice and a threat that it may seize the TLD, after its Whois systems allegedly suffered days of downtime.

According to ICANN, .gdn exceeded its weekly and monthly downtime limits in late March and early April, in both months triggering the threshold whereby ICANN is allowed to transition the TLD to an Emergency Back-End Registry Operator.

gTLD registries are allowed to have 864 minutes (about 14 hours) of unplanned Whois downtime per month. Downtime exceeding 24 hours per week is enough to trigger ICANN’s EBERO powers.

It appears to be the third time .gdn’s Whois has gone on the blink for longer than the permitted period — ICANN says it happened in April 2018 and August 2019 too. Those incidents were not publicized.

It seems the Russian registry, Joint Stock Company “Navigation-information systems”, managed to fix the problem on April 2, and ICANN is not invoking the EBERO transition, something it has done just a couple times before, just yet.

But it does want NIS to present it with a plan showing how it intends to avoid another spell of excessive downtime in future. It has until May 8, or ICANN may escalate.

.gdn is by most measures a bullshit TLD.

While it was originally intended to address some kind of satellite navigation niche, it eventually launched as a pure generic with the backronym “Global Domain Name” in 2016.

It managed to rack up over 300,000 registrations in the space of a year, almost all via disgraced and now-defunct registrar AlpNames, and was highlighted by SpamHaus as being one of the most spam-friendly of the new gTLDs.

After AlpNames went out of business two years ago, ICANN transferred some 350,000 .gdn names to CentralNic-owned registrar Key-Systems.

Today, Key-Systems has fewer than 300 .gdn domains. The TLD’s zone file dropped by about 290,000 domains in a single day last December.

.gdn had fewer than 11,000 domains under management at the end of 2020, 90% of which were registered through a Dubai-based registrar called Intracom Middle East FZE.

Intracom pretty much only sells .gdn domains, suggesting an affiliation with the registry.

Web searches for live sites using .gdn return not much more than what looks like porn spam.

A busted Whois looks like the least of its problems, to be honest.