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Registrars off the hook for silly ICANN transfer policy

Kevin Murphy, December 27, 2016, Domain Registrars

Domain name registrars have been assured that ICANN Compliance will not pursue them for failing to implement the new Transfer Policy on privacy-protected names.

As we reported late November, the new policy requires registrars to send out “change of registrant” confirmation emails whenever certain fields in the Whois are changed, regardless of whether the registrant has actually changed.

The GNSO Council pointed out to ICANN a number of unforeseen flaws in the policy, saying that vulnerable registrants privacy could be at risk in certain edge cases.

They also pointed out that the confirmation emails could be triggered, with not action by the registrant, when privacy services automatically cycle proxy email addresses in the Whois.

This appears to have already happened with at least one registrar that wasn’t paying attention.

But ICANN chair Steve Crocker told the GNSO Council chair last week that ICANN staff have been instructed to ignore violations of the new policy, which came into effect December 1, in cases involving privacy-protected domains (pdf).

It’s a temporary measure until the ICANN board decides whether or not to defer the issue to the GNSO working group currently looking at policies specifically for privacy and proxy services.

Survey says most Whois records “accurate”

Kevin Murphy, December 13, 2016, Domain Policy

Ninety-seven percent of Whois records contain working email addresses and/or phone numbers, according to the results of an ongoing ICANN survey.

The organization yesterday published the second of its now-biannual WHOIS Accuracy Reporting System reports, a weighty document stuffed with facts and figures about the reliability of Whois records.

It found, not for the first time, that the vast majority of Whois records are not overtly fake.

Email addresses and phone numbers found there almost always work, the survey found, and postal addresses for the most part appear to be real postal addresses.

The survey used a sample of 12,000 domains over 664 gTLDs. It tested for two types of accuracy: “syntactical” and “operability”.

Syntactical testing just checks, for example, whether the email address has an @ symbol in it and whether phone numbers have the correct number of digits.

Operability testing goes further, actually phoning and emailing the Whois contacts to see if the calls connect and emails don’t bounce back.

For postal addresses, the survey uses third-party software to see whether the address actually exists. No letters are sent.

The latest survey found that 97% of Whois records contain at least one working phone number or email address, “which implies that nearly all records contain information that can be used to establish immediate contact.”

If you’re being more strict about how accurate you want your records, the number plummets dramatically.

Only 65% of records had operable phone, email and postal contact info in each of the registrant, administrative and technical contact fields.

Regionally, fully accurate Whois was up to 77% in North America but as low as 49.5% in Africa.

So it’s not great news if Whois accuracy is your bugbear.

Also, the survey does not purport to verify that the owners of the contact information are in fact the true registrants, only that the information is not missing, fake or terminally out-of-date.

A Whois record containing somebody else’s address and phone number and a throwaway webmail address would be considered “accurate” for the survey’s purposes.

The 54-page survey can be found over here.

Thick Whois coming to .com next year, price rise to follow?

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign could be running a “thick” Whois database for .com, .net and .jobs by mid-2017, under a new ICANN proposal.

A timetable published this week would see the final three hold-out gTLDs fully move over to the standard thick Whois model by February 2019, with the system live by next August.

Some people believe that Verisign might use the move as an excuse to increase .com prices.

Thick Whois is where the registry stores the full Whois record, containing all registrant contact data, for every domain in their TLD.

The three Verisign TLDs currently have “thin” Whois databases, which only store information about domain creation dates, the sponsoring registrar and name servers.

The model dates back to when the registry and registrar businesses of Verisign’s predecessor, Network Solutions, were broken up at the end of the last century.

But it’s been ICANN consensus policy for about three years for Verisign to eventually switch to a thick model.

Finally, ICANN has published for public comment its anticipated schedule (pdf) for this to happen.

Under the proposal, Verisign would have to start offering registrars the ability to put domains in its thick Whois by August 1 2017, both live via EPP and in bulk.

It would not become obligatory for registrars to submit thick Whois for all newly registered domains until May 1, 2018.

They’d have until February 1, 2019 to bulk-migrate all existing Whois records over to the new system.

Thick Whois in .com has been controversial for a number of reasons.

Some registrars have expressed dissatisfaction with the idea of migrating part of their customer relationship to Verisign. Others have had concerns that local data protection laws may prevent them moving data in bulk overseas.

The new proposal includes a carve-out that would let registrars request an exemption from the requirements if they can show it would conflict with local laws, which holds the potential to make a mockery out of the entire endeavor.

Some observers also believe that Verisign may use the expense of building and operating the new Whois system as an excuse to trigger talks with ICANN about increasing the price of .com from its current, frozen level.

Under its .com contract, Verisign can ICANN ask for a fee increase “due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy”, which is exactly what the move to thick Whois is.

Whether it would choose to exercise this right is another question — .com is a staggeringly profitable cash-printing machine and this Whois is not likely to be that expensive, relatively speaking.

The proposed implementation timetable is open for public comment until December 15.

Registries rebel against ICANN’s Whois upgrade decree

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2016, Domain Services

Registry operators are challenging an ICANN decision to force them to launch a new Whois-style service, saying it will cost them too much money.

The Registries Stakeholder Group has filed a Request for Reconsideration — a low-level appeal — of a decision asking them to launch RDAP services to complement their existing Whois.

RDAP, Registration Data Access Protocol, is being broadly touted as the successor to Whois.

It offers the same functionality — you can query who owns a domain — but the data returned is more uniformly structured. It also enables access control, so not every user would have access to every field.

The RySG now claims that ICANN is trying to sneak an obligation to implement RDAP into its registry agreements through a “backdoor” in the form of the new Consistent Labeling and Display Policy.

That policy, which originated in a formal, community-driven GNSO Policy Development Process, seeks to normalize Whois (or Registration Data Services, in its generic not protocol-specific wording) output to make it easier to machine-read.

It applies to all gTLDs except .com, .net and .jobs (which are “thin” registries) and would come into effect February 1 next year.

Registries appear happy to implement the CL&D policy, but not as currently written. It now contains, almost as an aside, this requirement:

The implementation of an RDAP service in accordance with the “RDAP Operational Profile for gTLD Registries and Registrars” is required for all gTLD registries in order to achieve consistent labeling and display.

The RySG argues in its RfR (pdf) that implementing RDAP was never part of the community-endorsed plan, and that it is not “commercially feasible” to do so right now.

The 2012 new gTLD Registry Agreement specifies that implementation of the protocol now known as RDAP be commercially feasible before it’s required. The RySG can’t even respond as to whether it’s feasible or not since no reasoning to that regard was provided in the notice to implement such services.

Furthermore, some of our members are on record stating that since the RDAP profile replicates the known deficiencies of WHOIS – which is currently being studied by a PDP WG – so it’s not commercially feasible to deploy it to mimic a flawed system.

The introduction of RDAP represents an additive requirement for Registries to operate a new (additive) service. As there are no provisions for the sunset of the legacy Whois service, it’s unclear how this additional requirement can be considered commercially feasible.

In other words, the registries think it could be too costly to deploy RDAP and Whois at the same time, especially given that RDAP is not finished yet.

It’s yet another case of domain companies accusing ICANN the organization of slipping in requirements without community support.

Whether the RfR will be successful is debatable. There’s only been a few Reconsideration requests that have been approved by the ICANN board in the history of the mechanism.

However, the board may be feeling especially diligent when it comes to look at this particular RfR, due to the spotlight that was recently shone on the Reconsideration process by an Independent Review Process panel, which determined that the board just rubber-stamped decisions written by house lawyers.

Patent troll hits registrars with $60m shakedown

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2016, Domain Registrars

A patent troll that claims it invented email reminders has launched a shakedown campaign against registrars that could be worth as much as $62 million.

WhitServe LLC, which beat Go Daddy in a patent lawsuit last year, is now demanding licenses from registrars that could add as much as $0.50 to the cost of a domain name.

According to registrar sources, registrars on both sides of the Atlantic have this month been hit by demands for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in patent licensing fees.

The legal nastygrams present thinly veiled threats of litigation if the recipients decline to negotiate a license.

WhitServe is a Connecticut-based IP licensing firm with connections to NetDocket, which provides software for tracking patent license annuities.

It owns US patents 5,895,468 and 6,182,078, both of which date back to the late 1990s and cover “automating delivery of professional services”.

Basically, the company reckons it invented email reminders, such as those registrars send to registrants in the weeks leading up to their domain registration expiring.

Three years ago, GoDaddy, defending itself against WhitServe’s 2011 patent infringement lawsuit, compared the “inventions” to the concept putting “Don’t forget to pick up milk” notes on the fridge: utterly obvious and non-patentable.

In December 2012, GoDaddy implied WhitServe used its patent expertise and exploited a naive 1990s USPTO to obtain “over-broad” patents.

It was trying “to monopolize the entire concept of automatic Internet reminders across all industries, including domain name registrars”, according to a GoDaddy legal filing.

But the market-leading registrar somehow managed to lose the case, opting to settle last August after its last defense fell apart, for an undisclosed sum.

Now, WhitServe is using that victory to shake loose change out of the pockets of the rest of the market.

It’s told registrars that GoDaddy and Endurance International (owner of Domain.com, BigRock and others) are both currently licensing its patents.

The deal it is offering would see registrars pay $0.50 for every domain they have under management, a number that seems to be based on .com registry numbers reported by Verisign.

The fee would be reduced to $0.30 per name for each name over one million, and $0.20 for each name over five million, I gather. That’s still more than registrars pay in ICANN fees.

If WhitServe were to target every .com registrar (which I do not believe it has, yet) its demands could amount to as much as $62 million industry-wide, given that .com is approaching 125 million names right now.

It’s not clear whether these fees are expected to be one-time payments or recurring annual fees.

It’s a trickier predicament for registrars than the usual patent shakedown, because registrars are legally obliged under their contracts with ICANN to send email reminders in a variety of circumstances.

The Expired Registration Recovery Policy requires them to email renewal reminders to customers at least twice before their registrations expire.

There’s also the Whois Data Reminder Policy, which obliges registrars to have their customers check the accuracy of their Whois once a year.

These are not services registrars are simply able to turn off to avoid these patent litigation threats.

Whether registrars will take this lying down or attempt to fight it remains to be seen.