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DI Leaders Roundtable #3 — What did you think of ICANN 66?

Kevin Murphy, November 25, 2019, Leaders Roundtable

It’s time for the third in the series of DI Leaders Roundtables, in which I pose a single question to a selection of the industry’s thought leaders.

With ICANN 66 taking place a couple of weeks ago in Montreal, Canada, a multitude of topics came under public discussion, among them: DNS abuse, the .amazon gTLD application, access to Whois data and geographic names protections.

So, this time around, I asked:

What was your biggest takeaway from ICANN 66?

And this, in no particular order, is what they said:

Frank Schilling, CEO, Uniregistry

Mugshot

What a great industry… So many stable players with fresh ideas. Innovators who cross pollinate and stay with the industry in spite of the fact that there is no new gold and obvious money-making opportunity at the moment. Many stable operators trying new things and growing the industry from the inside out.

Michele Neylon, CEO, Blacknight

MugshotThere weren’t any big surprises at ICANN 66. As I expected there were a couple of topics that many people were focussed on and they ignored pretty much everything else.

The biggest single topic was “abuse”. It’s not a “new” topic, but it’s definitely one that has come to the fore in recent months.

Several of us signed on to a “framework to address abuse” in the run up to the ICANN meeting and that, in many respects, may have helped to shift the focus a little bit. It’s pretty clear that not all actors within the eco system are acting in good faith or taking responsibility for their actions (and inactions). It’s also pretty clear that a lot of us are tired of having to pay the cost for other people’s lack of willingness to deal with the issues.

Calls for adding more obligations to our contracts are not welcome and I don’t think they’ll help deal with the real outliers anyway.

There’s nothing wrong in theory with offering cheap domain names but if you consciously choose to adopt that business model you also need to make sure that you are proactive in dealing with fraud and abuse.

Ben Crawford, CEO, CentralNic

MugshotThat M&A has become the dominant business activity in the domain industry.

Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Tech

MugshotMy takeaways are shaped by my participation on the EPDP, which is trying to build a “standardized system of access and disclosure” for redacted Whois data. The acronym is SSAD, but it is known among EPDP aficionados as the “So-SAD.” This is because nearly all stakeholders think they want it to exist, but the process of constructing it through an ICANN PDP is painful and certain to make everyone unhappy with what they ultimately get.

The big issue here concerns the question of where liability under the GDPR will sit when private data is released through a So-SAD. Registrars and registries would like to fob off the responsibility to ICANN; ICANN tells the world that it wants responsibility to be centralized somehow in a So-SAD but ducks, dodges and double-talks if you ask it whether ICANN org is willing to take that responsibility.

ICANN’s CEO, who fancies himself a European politician of sorts, has driven the EPDP team batty with a parallel process in which he ignores the fact that the EPDP team has all stakeholders represented, lawyers from contracted parties and data users, and privacy experts on it, as well as formal legal advice from Bird and Bird. Instead he feels compelled to launch a parallel process in which ICANN org goes about trying to make proposals and then ask European authorities about them. He has asked a bunch of techies unaware of the policy issues to design a So-SAD for us and is now badgering various European agencies for “advice” and “guidance” on whether such a system could centralize legal responsibility for disclosure decisions. The parallel process, known as the Strawberry team, was featured in the public meeting on Whois reform as if it was of equal status as the formally constituted EPDP.

But a great ICANN 66 takeaway moment occurred during that moment. The European Commission’s Pearce O’Donoghue told the assembled multitudes that a SoSAD “WOULD NOT…REMOVE THE LIABILITY OF THE DATA CONTROLLER, WHICH IS THE REGISTRAR OR THE REGISTRY. SO WE WOULD HAVE A QUESTION AS TO WHETHER IT IS ACTUALLY WORTH THAT ADDED COMPLEXITY.” So, bang, the request for European advice blew up right in Goran Marby’s face. Not only did he get a critical piece of advice on the most important issue facing the SoSAD and the EPDP, but he got it without going through the elaborate parallel process. No doubt there is now furious behind the scenes lobbying going on to reverse, change or step back from O’Donoghue’s comment. Marby has been quoted (and directly seen, by this writer) as claiming that with the submission of the Strawberry team’s formal request for “guidance” from the European Data Protection Board being submitted, he is now “done” with this. Let’s hope that’s true. My takeaway: ICANN org and all of its fruity concoctions needs to get out of the way and let the PDP work.

The final EPDP-related takeaway is that the biggest decision facing the EPDP as it makes policy for the So-SAD is who makes the disclosure decision: registrars who hold the data, or ICANN? Everyone agrees with centralizing the process of requesting data and hooking up to a system to receive it. But who makes the decision is still contested, with some stakeholders wanting it to be ICANN and others wanting it to reside with the contracted parties. It seems obvious to me that it has to be the registrar, and we should just accept that and get on with designing the So-SAD based on that premise.

Jothan Frakes, Executive Director, Domain Name Association

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A few: WHOIS (or Lookup) remains challenging territory, registries and registrars > are not inactive about addressing abuse while avoiding becoming content police, and poutine is delicious.

Christa Taylor, CMO, MMX

MugshotFrom my perspective, the biggest takeaway is the level of industrious efforts, transformation and passion throughout the industry. Every meeting and dinner consisted of a broad range of organizations and people with diverse perspectives on industry topics resulting in thought-provoking debates or conceptual brainteasers. Compared to a year ago, the conversations have materially changed — impacted from industry consolidations, system updates and developments along with organizational transitions to streamline business in one method or another. While there is still plenty of work ahead of us, both within the industry and ICANN, it’s satisfying to reflect and realize that progress is being achieved, cooperation benefits all and no matter how long the tunnel might be, there is light.

DI Leaders Roundtable #2 — Should we kill off “Whois”?

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2019, Domain Tech

Should we stop using the word “Whois” to describe registration data lookup services?

That’s the question I posed for the second DI Leaders Roundtable.

I’m sure you’re all very well aware that the Registration Data Access Protocol (RDAP) is the imminent replacement for the Whois protocol, as the technical method by which domain registrant contact information is stored, transmitted and displayed.

ICANN also regularly refers to Registration Data Directory Services (RDDS) as a protocol-independent blanket term covering the concept of looking up Whois or RDAP data.

You may also recall that ICANN, which is ostensibly a technical body, appears to bedeprecating the word “Whois” in favor of “Lookup” on its own web-based query service.

ICANN has a track record of introducing new acronyms to describe already well-understood functions. The IANA has technically been called “Public Technical Identifiers” for years, but does anyone actually call it “PTI”? No, everyone still talks about “IANA”.

So I wanted to know:

Should we continue to call it “Whois” after the technical transition to RDAP is complete? Will you continue to refer to “Whois”? Should we change to a different word or acronym? Should the industry standardardize its language one way or the other?

There seems to be a general consensus that “Whois” ain’t going anywhere.

The responses, in no particular order.

Jothan Frakes, Executive Director, Domain Name Association

Mugshot

The term WHOIS won’t quickly leave the zeitgeist due to the decades of its use as a description of the lookup process. Lookup is somewhat confusing, as there is DNS Query lookup that works across the resolution system, and WHOIS Lookup that works to find registrant info via the registration system. As far as the term “Lookup” as the label for the new normal that is poised to replace WHOIS? It is better than the acronym “RDDS”. The general public probably would not assume that RDDS is a way to find out about a domain owner or registration information, because it sounds like it involves dentistry (DDS) if one is not following the ICANN world as close as insiders. Despite the evolutionary path the basic function seems to be on, it is likely that WHOIS continues to be what the nickname for the lookup process called, regardless of the support technology layers below it not literally being WHOIS.

Frank Schilling, CEO, Uniregistry

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WHOIS IS DEAD, LONG LIVE WHOIS.

The echo of “Whois” will live long after Whois is dead and gone. The very nature of its replacement word “Lookup” ensures that the information hungry public will expect more fulsome data than ICANN intends the word to provide. There will continue to be services who try to engineer a Whois hack and provide accurate underlying data for paying customers. Whois is going to outlive all of us. Even those who diet, exercise, and eat organic food.

Dave Piscitello, Partner, Interisle Consulting Group

MugshotJust as most of the world isn’t familiar with new TLDs, most have no appreciation for the differences between Whois and RDAP. The term “Whois” is convenient, memorable, and embedded. It also represents a service to most users, not a protocol, so if we do “standardize” we should use “RDS”. While we sort out the disastrous effects of ICANN’s Temp Spec policy on both investigators and victims of DNS abuse, most parties involved with educating policy makers and legislators should continue to use Whois for consistency’s sake.

Christa Taylor, CMO, MMX

MugshotAs the old adage goes, “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” While “Whois” may have lost some of its luster due to GDPR I prefer to retain the term — it’s simple, representative of the information it provides and avoids adding any confusion especially for people outside of ICANN. Employing standardized language is, of course, logical and after twenty years of using “Whois” it is the accepted term both inside and outside the industry.

Sandeep Ramchamdani, CEO, Radix Registry

MugshotFirst up, the transition to the RDAP system is much needed given the fundamental flaws of Whois.

It would help in placing some guardrails around customers’ privacy while still providing agencies such as law enforcement authenticated access that they need to do their work.

Whois is a major cause of spam and in the age where privacy is top currency, public, unauthenticated availability of personal data is unacceptable.

It should also smooth out inter-registrar transfers and lower customer frustration while moving out to a different service provider.

When it comes to its name, calling it “RDAP” or “Lookup” would be a branding error. It would cause some confusion and for those not intimately involved in the industry, who may find it hard to discover the new system.

In my mind, keeping the original nomenclature “Whois”, while making it clear that it’s a newer avatar of the same solution would be the way to go.

Can’t think of a better term than “Whois 2.0”.

Very easy to understand that it’s a newer, more advanced iteration of the same product.

Michele Neylon, CEO, Blacknight

Mugshot

Whois was originally a simple little protocol that allowed network operators to contact each other to address technical issues. It predates the usage of domain names or the “web”.

When domains were introduced the same concept was simply transposed over to the new identifiers.

However over the past 20 plus years the way that people viewed Whois has morphed dramatically. The first time I spoke at an ICANN meeting 12 years ago was on the subject of Whois!

Now the term is used both to talk about the technical protocol, which is being replaced in the gTLD space and the data that it is used to store and possibly display. We talk about “Thin Whois”, “Thick Whois” and so many other services and issues linked back to it.

Whois as a protocol is far from perfect, which is why replacing the technical side of it makes a lot of sense.

So with the world slowly moving towards a new technical method for processing domain registration data then maybe we should come up with another word for it. However I’m not sure if there’s much to be gained by doing that.

We are all used to the floppy disk icon to save a document, even if floppy disks are no longer used. With the term “Whois” being part of people’s vocabulary for the nearly a quarter of a century. it’d be pretty hard to find a simple replacement and have people adopt it widely. Sure, in the more technical conversations it makes sense to use more accurate terms like “RDAP”, but the average punter just wants to be able to use a term that they can understand.

Those of us who work with domains and internet technology in our day jobs might care about the “correct” terminology, but we’re in a minority. We all get excited when the mainstream media picks up on a story involving domain names or the DNS and even gets half of it right! If we conjure up some new term that we think is accurate it’ll take years before anyone outside our bubble is comfortable with it. So I don’t think we should.

We should simply accept that “Whois” is a term used to refer to domain registration data no matter what technology under the hood is used to handle it.

Rick Schwartz, domain investor

MugshotHate to give the same basic answer to two questions in a row, but who cares?

Really!! Who cares? Nobody!

This is inside baseball that doesn’t affect anyone on the entire planet except for a handful of domain investors and ICANN etc.

Call it whatever you like just make sure it’s public info.

ICANN enters talks to kill off Whois for good

Kevin Murphy, October 23, 2019, Domain Tech

Whois’ days are numbered.

ICANN is to soon enter talks with accredited registrars and contracted gTLD registries with the aim of naming a date to finally “sunset” the aging protocol.

It wants to negotiate amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement and Registry Agreement with a view to replacing obligations to publish Whois with obligations to publish Registration Data Access Protocol data.

In letters to the chairs of its registrar and registry constituencies this week, ICANN CEO Göran Marby wrote:

The primary focus of the amendment is to incorporate contractual requirements for the Registration Data Access Protocol (RDAP) into the Registration Data Directory Services. This should include definition of the plan and provisions to sunset the obligations related to the WHOIS protocol as we transition Registration Data Services to RDAP.

For avoidance of doubt, people will still be able to look up the contact information for domain name owners after the change, but the data they see (very likely redacted for privacy reasons nowadays) will be delivered over a different protocol.

The contract amendment processes involve both registry and registrar constituencies to nominate a few people to engage in talks with ICANN negotiators, which is expected to conclude within 90 days.

When they come up with mutually acceptable language, the amendments will be open for both public comment and a vote of registries and registrars, before going to the ICANN board of directors for final approval.

The voting process is complex, designed to avoid capture by the largest registrars, and based on a balance of the number of voting registrars and the number of domains they collectively manage.

The contractual changes will come as no surprise to contracted parties, which have been on-notice for years that Whois is on its way out in favor of RDAP.

Most registrars already operate an RDAP server in parallel to their old Whois service, following an ICANN deadline in August.

We could be looking at the death of Whois within a year.

Crunch time, again, for Whois access policy

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2019, Domain Policy

Talks seeking to craft a new policy for allowing access to private Whois data have hit another nodal point, with the community now pressuring the ICANN board of directors for action.

The Whois working group has more or less decided that a centralized model for data access, with ICANN perhaps acting as a clearinghouse, is the best way forward, but it needs to know whether ICANN is prepared to take on this role and all the potential liabilities that come with it.

Acronym time! The group is known as the Whois EPDP WG (for Expedited Policy Development Process Working Group) and it’s come up with a rough Whois access framework it’s decided to call the Standardized System for Access and Disclosure (SSAD).

Its goal is to figure out a way to minimize the harms that Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation allegedly caused to law enforcement, IP owners, security researchers and others by hiding basically all gTLD registration data by default.

The SSAD, which is intended to be as automated as possible, is the working group’s proposed way of handling this.

The “hamburger model” the EPDP has come up with sees registries/registrars and data requestors as the top and bottom of the sandwich (or vice versa) with some yet-to-be-decided organizational patty filling acting as an interface between the two.

The patty would handle access control for the data requests and be responsible for credentialing requestors. It could either be ICANN acting alone, or ICANN coordinating several different interface bodies (the likes of WIPO have been suggested).

Should the burger be made only of mashed-up cow eyelids, or should it incorporate the eyelids of other species too? That’s now the question that ICANN’s board is essentially being posed.

Since this “phase two” work kicked off, it’s taken about five months, 24 two-hour teleconferences, and a three-day face-to-face meeting to get to this still pretty raw, uncooked state.

The problem the working group is facing now is that everyone wants ICANN to play a hands-on role in running a centralized SSAD system, but it has little idea just how much ICANN is prepared to get involved.

The cost of running such a system aside, legislation such as GDPR allows for pretty hefty fines in cases of privacy breaches, so there’s potentially a big liability ask of notoriously risk-averse ICANN.

So the WG has written to ICANN’s board of directors in an attempt to get a firm answer one way or the other.

If the board decided ICANN should steer clear, the WG may have to go back more or less to square one and focus on adapting the current Whois model, which is distributed among registrars and registries, for the post-GDPR world.

How much risk and responsibility ICANN is willing to absorb could also dictate which specific SSAD models the WG pursues in future.

There’s also a view that, with no clarity from ICANN, the chance of the WG reaching consensus is unlikely.

This will be a hot topic at ICANN 66 in Montreal next month.

Expect the Governmental Advisory Committee, which had asked for “considerable and demonstrable progress, if not completion” of the access model by Montreal, to be disappointed.

Whois killer deadline has passed. Did most registrars miss it?

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2019, Domain Registrars

The deadline for registrars to implement the new Whois-killer RDAP protocol passed yesterday, but it’s possible most registrars did not hit the target.

ICANN told registrars in February (pdf) that they had six months to start making RDAP (Registration Data Access Protocol) services available.

RDAP is the replacement for the age-old Whois protocol, and provides virtually the same experience for the end user, enabling them to query domain ownership records.

It’s a bit more structured and flexible, however, enabling future services such as tiered, authenticated access.

Despite the August 26 deadline coming and going, ICANN records suggest that as many as three quarter of accredited registrars have not yet implemented RDAP.

The IANA department started publishing the base URLs for registrar RDAP servers recent.

According to this list, there are 2,454 currently accredited registrars, of which only 615 (about 25%) have an RDAP server.

But I’m not convinced this number is particularly useful.

First, just because a registrar’s RDAP server is not listed, does not mean it does not have one.

For example, the two largest registrars, Tucows and GoDaddy, do not have servers on the list, but both are known to have been working on RDAP services for a long time through public pilots or live services. Similarly, some CentralNic registrars have servers listed while others do not.

Second, of the 1,839 accreditations without servers, at least 1,200 are DropCatch.com shells, which tips the scales towards non-compliance considerably.

Still, it seems likely that some registrars did in fact miss their deadline. How stringently ICANN chooses to enforce this remains to be seen.

ICANN itself replaced its “Whois” service with a “Lookup” service last month.

According to Michele Neylon of the registrar Blacknight, contracted parties can also discover RDAP URLs via ICANN’s closed RADAR registrar information portal.

RDAP and Whois will run concurrently for a while before Whois takes its final bow and disappears forever.

ICANN dumps the “Whois” in new Whois tool

Kevin Murphy, July 31, 2019, Domain Tech

Of all the jargon regularly deployed in the domain name industry and ICANN community, “Whois” is probably the one requiring the least explanation.

It’s self-explanatory, historically doing exactly what it says on the tin. But it’s on its way out, to be replaced by the far less user-friendly “RDAP”.

The latest piece of evidence of this transition: ICANN has pushed its old Whois query tool aside in favor of a new, primarily RDAP-based service that no longer uses the word “Whois”.

RDAP is the Registration Data Access Protocol, the IETF’s standardized Whois replacement to which gTLD registries and registrars are contractually obliged to migrate their registrant data.

Thankfully, ICANN isn’t branding the service on this rather opaque acronym. Rather, it’s using the word “Lookup” instead.

The longstanding whois.icann.org web site has been deprecated, replaced with lookup.icann.org. Visitors to the old page will be bounced to the new one.

The old site looked like this:

Whois

The new site looks like this:

Whois

It’s pretty much useless for most domains, if you want to find out who actually owns them.

If you query a .com or .net domain, you’ll only receive Verisign’s “thin” output. This does not included any registrant information.

That’s unlike most commercial Whois services, which also ping the relevant registrar for the full thick record.

For non-Verisign gTLDs, ICANN will return the registry’s thick record, but it will be very likely be mostly redacted, as required under ICANN’s post-GDPR privacy policy.

While contracted parties are still transitioning away from Whois to RDAP, the ICANN tool will fail over to the old Whois output if it receives no RDAP data.

Under current ICANN Whois policy, registries and registrars have until August 26 to deploy RDAP services to run alongside their existing Whois services.

Airline hit with $230 million GDPR fine

Kevin Murphy, July 8, 2019, Domain Policy

British Airways is to be fined £183.39 million ($230 million) over a customer data breach last year, by far the biggest penalty to be handed out under the General Data Protection Regulation to date.

This story is not directly related to the domain name industry, but it does demonstrate that European data protection authorities are not messing about when it comes to GDPR enforcement.

About 500,000 BA customers had their personal data — including full payment card details — stolen by attackers between June and September last year, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office said today..

It is believed that they obtained the data not by hacking BA’s database, but rather by inserting a script hosted by third-party domain that executed whenever a customer transacted with the site, allowing credentials to be captured in real time.

The ICO said its decision to fine $183.39 million — which amounts to more than 1.5% of BA’s annual revenue — is preliminary and can be appealed by BA.

Under GDPR, which came into effect in May 2018, companies can be fined up to 4% of revenue.

The biggest pre-GDPR fine is reportedly the £500,000 penalty that Facebook was given due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

GDPR is of course of concern to the domain industry due to the ongoing attempts to make sure Whois databases are compliant with the laws.

PwC wants to be your Whois gatekeeper

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2019, Domain Services

PricewaterhouseCoopers has built a Whois access system that may help domain name companies and intellectual property interests call a truce in their ongoing battle over access to private Whois data.

Its new TieredAccess Platform will enable registries and registrars to “outsource the entire process of providing access to non-public domain registration data”.

That’s according to IP lawyer Bart Lieben, partner at the Belgian law firm ARTES, who devised the system and is working with PwC to develop it.

The offering is designed to give trademark lawyers access to the data they lust after, while also reducing costs and mitigating domain name industry liability under the General Data Protection Regulation.

TieredAccess would make PwC essentially the gatekeeper for all requests for private Whois data (at least, in the registries plugged into the platform) coming from the likes of trademark owners, security researchers, lawyers and law enforcement agencies.

At one end, these requestors would be pre-vetted by PwC, after which they’d be able to ask for unredacted Whois records using PwC as an intermediary.

They’d have to pick from one of 43 pre-written request scenarios (such as cybersquatting investigation, criminal probe or spam prevention) and assert that they will only use the data they obtain for the stated purposes.

At the other end, registries and registrars will have adopted a set of rules that specify how such requests should be responded to.

A ruleset could say that cops get more access to data than security researchers, for example, or that a criminal investigation is more important than a UDRP complaint.

PwC has created a bunch of templates, but registrars and registries would be able to adapt these policies to their own tastes.

Once the rules are put in place, and the up-front implementation work has been done to plug PwC into their Whois servers, they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Whois requests manually as most are today. The whole lot would be automated.

Not even PwC would have human eyes on the requests. The private data would only be stored temporarily.

One could argue that there’s the potential for abusive or non-compliant requests making it through, which may give liability-nervous companies pause.

But the requests and response metadata would be logged for audit and compliance, so abusive users could be fingered after the act.

Lieben says the whole system has been checked for GDPR compliance, assuming its prefabricated baseline scenarios and templates are adopted unadulterated.

He said that the PwC brand should give clients on both sides “peace of mind” that they’re not breaking privacy law.

If a registrar requires an affidavit before releasing data, the assertions requestors make to PwC should tick that box, he said.

Given that this is probably a harder sell to the domain name industry side of the equation, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the requestors that are likely to shoulder most of the cost burden of using the service.

Lieben said a pricing model has not yet been set, but that it could see fees paid by registrars subsidized by the fees paid by requestors.

There’s a chance registries could wind up paying nothing, he said.

The project has been in the works since September and is currently in the testing phase, with PwC trying to entice registries and registrars onto the platform.

Lieben said some companies have already agreed to test the service, but he could not name them yet.

The service was developed against the backdrop of ongoing community discussions within ICANN in the Expedited Policy Development Working group, which is trying to create a GDPR-compliant policy for access to private Whois records.

ICANN Org has also made it known that it is considering making itself the clearinghouse for Whois queries, to allow its contracted parties to offload some liability.

It’s quite possible that once the policies are in place, ICANN may well decide to outsource the gatekeeper function to the likes of PwC.

That appears to be what Lieben has in mind. After all, it’s what he did with the Trademark Clearinghouse almost a decade ago — building it independently with Deloitte while the new gTLD rules were still being written and then selling the service to ICANN when the time came.

The TieredAccess service is described in some detail here.

Major registries posting “fabricated” Whois data

One or more of the major gTLD registries are publishing Whois query data that may be “fabricated”, according to some of ICANN’s top security minds.

The Security and Stability Advisory Committee recently wrote to ICANN’s top brass to complain about inconsistent and possibly outright bogus reporting of Whois port 43 query volumes.

SSAC said (pdf):

it appears that the WHOIS query statistics provided to ICANN by registry operators as part of their monthly reporting obligations are generally not reliable. Some operators are using different methods to count queries, some are interpreting the registry contract differently, and some may be reporting numbers that are fabricated or otherwise not reflective of reality. Reliable reporting is essential to the ICANN community, especially to inform policy-making.

SSAC says that the inconsistency of the data makes it very difficult to make informed decisions about the future of Whois access and to determine the impact of GPDR.

While the letter does not name names, I’ve replicated some of SSAC’s research and I think I’m in a position to point fingers.

In my opinion, Google, Verisign, Afilias and Donuts appear to be the causes of the greatest concern for SSAC, but several others exhibit behavior SSAC is not happy about.

I reached out to these four registries on Wednesday and have published their responses, if I received any, below.

SSAC’s concerns relate to the monthly data dumps that gTLD registries new and old are contractually obliged to provide ICANN, which publishes the data three months later.

Some of these stats concern billable transactions such as registrations and renewals. Others are used to measure uptime obligations. Others are largely of academic interest.

One such stat is “Whois port 43 queries”, defined in gTLD contracts as “number of WHOIS (port-43) queries responded during the reporting period”.

According to SSAC, and confirmed by my look at the data, there appears to be a wide divergence in how registries and back-end registry services providers calculate this number.

The most obvious example of bogosity is that some registries are reporting identical numbers for each of their TLDs. SSAC chair Rod Rasmussen told DI:

The largest issue we saw at various registries was the reporting of the exact or near exact same number of queries for many or all of their supported TLDs, regardless of how many registered domain names are in those zones. That result is a statistical improbability so vanishingly small that it seems clear that they were reporting some sort of aggregate number for all their TLDs, either as a whole or divided amongst them.

While Rasmussen would not name the registries concerned, my research shows that the main culprit here appears to be Google.

In its December data dumps, it reported exactly 68,031,882 port 43 queries for each of its 45 gTLDs.

If these numbers are to be believed, .app with its 385,000 domains received precisely the same amount of port 43 interest as .gbiz, which has no registrations.

As SSAC points out, this is simply not plausible.

A Google spokesperson has not yet responded to DI’s request for comment.

Similarly, Afilias appears to have reported identical data for a subset of its dot-brand clients’ gTLDs, 16 of which purportedly had exactly 1,071,939 port 43 lookups in December.

Afilias has many more TLDs that did not report identical data.

An Afilias spokesperson told DI: “Afilias has submitted data to ICANN that addresses the anomaly and the update should be posted shortly.”

SSAC’s second beef is that one particular operator may have reported numbers that “were altered or synthesized”. SSAC said in its letter:

In a given month, the number of reported WHOIS queries for each of the operator’s TLDs is different. While some of the TLDs are much larger than others, the WHOIS query totals for them are close to each other. Further statistical analysis on the number of WHOIS queries per TLD revealed that an abnormal distribution. For one month of data for one of the registries, the WHOIS query counts per TLD differed from the mean by about +/- 1%, nearly linearly. This appeared to be highly unusual, especially with TLDs that have different usage patterns and domain counts. There is a chance that the numbers were altered or synthesized.

I think SSAC could be either referring here to Donuts or Verisign

Looking again at December’s data, all but one of Donuts’ gTLDs reported port 43 queries between 99.3% and 100.7% of the mean average of 458,658,327 queries.

Is it plausible that .gripe, with 1,200 registrations, is getting almost as much Whois traffic as .live, with 343,000? Seems unlikely.

Donuts has yet to provide DI with its comments on the SSAC letter. I’ll update this post and tweet the link if I receive any new information.

All of the gTLDs Verisign manages on behalf of dot-brand clients, and some of its own non-.com gTLDs, exhibit the same pattern as Donuts in terms of all queries falling within +/- 1% of the mean, which is around 431 million per month.

So, as I put to Verisign, .realtor (~40k regs) purportedly has roughly the same number of port 43 queries as .comsec (which hasn’t launched).

Verisign explained this by saying that almost all of the port 43 queries it reports come from its own systems. A spokesperson told DI:

The .realtor and .comsec query responses are almost all responses to our own monitoring tools. After explaining to SSAC how Verisign continuously monitors its systems and services (which may be active in tens or even hundreds of locations at any given time) we are confident that the accuracy of the data Verisign reports is not in question. The reporting requirement calls for all query responses to be counted and does not draw a distinction between responses to monitoring and non-monitoring queries. If ICANN would prefer that all registries distinguish between the two, then it is up to ICANN to discuss that with registry operators.

It appears from the reported numbers that Verisign polls its own Whois servers more than 160 times per second. Donuts’ numbers are even larger.

I would guess, based on the huge volumes of queries being reported by other registries, that this is common (but not universal) practice.

SSAC said that it approves of the practice of monitoring port 43 responses, but it does not think that registries should aggregate their own internal queries with those that come from real Whois consumers when reporting traffic to ICANN.

Either way, it thinks that all registries should calculate their totals in the same way, to make apples-to-apples comparisons possible.

Afilias’ spokesperson said: “Afilias agrees that everyone should report the data the same way.”

As far as ICANN goes, its standard registry contract is open to interpretation. It doesn’t really say why registries are expected to collect and supply this data, merely that they are obliged to do so.

The contracts do not specify whether registries are supposed to report these numbers to show off the load their servers are bearing, or to quantify demand for Whois services.

SSAC thinks it should be the latter.

You may be thinking that the fact that it’s taken a decade or more for anyone to notice that the data is basically useless means that it’s probably not all that important.

But SSAC thinks the poor data quality interferes with research on important policy and practical issues.

It’s rendered SSAC’s attempt to figure out whether GDPR and ICANN’s Temp Spec have had an effect on Whois queries pretty much futile, for example.

The meaningful research in question also includes work leading to the replacement of Whois with RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol.

Finally, there’s the looming possibility that ICANN may before long start acting as a clearinghouse for access to unredacted Whois records. If it has no idea how often Whois is actually used, that’s going to make planning its infrastructure very difficult, which in turn could lead to downtime.

Rasmussen told DI: “Our impression is that all involved want to get the numbers right, but there are inconsistent approaches to reporting between registry operators that lead to data that cannot be utilized for meaningful research.”

Governments demand Whois reopened within a year

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s government advisers wants cops, trademark owners and others to get access to private Whois data in under a year from now.

The Governmental Advisory Committee wants to see “considerable and demonstrable progress, if not completion” of the so-called “unified access model” for Whois by ICANN66 in Montreal, a meeting due to kick off November 4 this year.

The demand came in a letter (pdf) last week from GAC chair Manal Ismail to her ICANN board counterpart Cherine Chalaby.

She wrote that the GAC wants “phase 2” of the ongoing Expedited Policy Development Process on Whois not only concluded but also implemented “within 12 months or less” of now.

It’s a more specific version of the generic “hurry up” advice delivered formally in last month’s Kobe GAC communique.

It strikes me as a ludicrously ambitious deadline.

Phase 2 of the EPDP’s work involves deciding what “legitimate interests” should be able to request access to unredacted private Whois data, and how such requests should be handled.

The GAC believes “legitimate interests include civil, administrative and criminal law enforcement, cybersecurity, consumer protection and IP rights protection”.

IP interests including Facebook want to be able to vacuum up as much data as they want more or less on demand, but they face resistance from privacy advocates in the non-commercial sector (which want to make access as restrictive as possible) and to a lesser extent registries and registrars (which want something as cheap and easy as possible to implement and operate that does not open them up to legal liability).

Ismail’s letter suggests that work could be sped up by starting the implementation of stuff the EPDP group agrees to as it agrees to it, rather than waiting for its full workload to be complete.

Given the likelihood that there will be a great many dependencies between the various recommendations the group will come up with, this suggestion also comes across as ambitious.

The EPDP group is currently in a bit of a lull, following the delivery of its phase 1 report to ICANN, which is expected to approve its recommendations next month.

Since the phase 1 work finished in late February, there’s been a change of leadership of the group, and bunch of its volunteer members have been swapped out.

Volunteers have also complained about burnout, and there’s been some pressure for the pace of work — which included four to five hours of teleconferences per week for six months — to be scaled back for the second phase.

The group’s leadership has discussed 12 to 18 months as a “realistic and desirable” timeframe for it to reach its Initial Report stage on the phase 2 work.

For comparison, it published its Initial Report for phase 1 after only six stressful months on the job, and not only have its recommendations not been implemented, they’ve not even been approved by ICANN’s board of directors yet. That’s expected to happen this Friday, at the board’s retreat in Istanbul.

With this previous experience in mind, the chances of the GAC getting a unified Whois access service implemented within a year seem very remote.