DreamHost, a web hosting provider which says it hosts over 1.3 million web sites, has been hit with a lengthy ICANN compliance notice, largely concerning alleged Whois failures.
The breach notice raises questions about the company’s popular free Whois privacy service.
Chiefly, DreamHost has failed to demonstrate that it properly investigates Whois inaccuracy complaints, as required by the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, according to ICANN.
The notice contains numerous other complaints about alleged failures to publish information about renewal fees, its directors and abuse contacts on its web site.
The domain highlighted by ICANN in relation to the Whois failure is senect.com
ICANN sent three compliance notices to DreamHost concerning a Whois inaccuracy report for the domain name
and requested DreamHost demonstrate that it took reasonable steps to investigate the Whois inaccuracy claims. DreamHost’s failure to provide documentation demonstrating the reasonable steps it took to investigate and correct the alleged Whois inaccuracy is a breach of Section 3.7.8 of the RAA.
Weirdly, senect.com has been under private registration at DreamHost since the start of 2012.
ICANN seems to be asking the registrar to investigate itself in this case.
DreamHost offers private registration to its customers for free. It populates the Whois with proxy contact information and the registrant name “A Happy DreamHost Customer”.
DomainTools associates “A Happy DreamHost Customer” with over 710,000 domain names.
As an accredited registrar, DreamHost had over 822,000 gTLD domain names at the last count. According to its web site, it has over 400,000 customers.
The breach notice also demands the company immediately start including the real contact information for its privacy/proxy customers in its data escrow deposits.
ICANN has given the company until November 21 to resolve a laundry list of alleged RAA breaches, or risk losing its accreditation.
Over 800,000 domain names have been suspended since the beginning of the year as a result of Whois email verification rules in the new ICANN Registrar Accreditation Agreement.
That’s according to the Registrars Stakeholder Group, which collected suspension data from registrars representing about 75% of all registered gTLD domain names.
The actual number of suspended domains could be closer to a million.
The 2013 RAA requires registrars to verify the email addresses listed in their customers’ Whois records. If they don’t receive the verification, they have to suspend the domain.
The RrSG told the ICANN board in March that these checks were doing more harm than good and today Tucows CEO Elliot Noss presented, as promised, data to back up the claim.
“There have been over 800,000 domains suspended,” Noss said. “We have stories of healthcare sites that have gone down, community groups whose sites have gone down.”
“I think we can safely say millions of internet users,” he said. “Those are real people just trying to use the internet. They are our great unrepresented core constituency.”
The RrSG wants to see contrasting data from law enforcement agencies and governments — which pushed hard for Whois verification — showing that the RAA requirement has had a demonstrable benefit.
Registrars asked at the Singapore meeting in March that law enforcement agencies (LEA) be put on notice that they can’t ask for more Whois controls until they’ve provided such data and ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said “It shall be done by London.”
Noss implied that the majority of the 800,000 suspended names belong to innocent registrants, such as those who had simply changed email addresses since registering their names.
“What was a lovely political win that we said time and time again in discussion after discussion was impractical and would provide no benefit, has demonstrably has created harm,” Noss said.
He was received with cautious support by ICANN board members.
Chair Steve Crocker wonder aloud how many of the 800,000 suspended domains are owned by bad guys, and he noted that LEA don’t appear to gather data in the way that the registrars are demanding.
“We were subjected, all of us, to heavy-duty pressure from the law enforcement community over a long period of time. We finally said, ‘Okay, we hear you and we’ll help you get this stuff implemented,'”, he added. “That creates an obligation as far as I’m concerned on their part.”
“We’re in a — at least from a moral position — in a strong position to say, ‘You must help us understand this. Otherwise, you’re not doing your part of the job'”, he said.
Chehade also seemed to support the registrars’ position that LEA needs to justify its demands and offered to take their data and concerns to the LEA and the Governmental Advisory Committee.
“They put restrictions on us that are causing harm, according to these numbers,” he said. “Let’s take this back at them and say, hey, you ask for all these things, this is what happened.”
“If you can’t tell me what good this has done, be aware not to come back and ask for more,” he said. “I’m with you on this 100%. I’m saying let’s use the great findings you seem to have a found and well-package them in a case and I will be your advocate.”
Director Mike Silber also spoke in support of the RrSG’s position.
“My view is if what you are saying is correct, the LEA’s have blown their credibility,” he said. “They’re going to have to do a lot of work before we impose similar disproportional requirements on actors that are not proven to be bad actors.”
So what does this all mean for registrants?
I don’t think there’s any ongoing process right now to get the Whois verification requirements overturned — that would require a renegotiation of the RAA — but it does seem to mean demands from governments and police are going to have to be much more substantiated in future.
Noss attempted to link the problem to the recommendations of the Whois Expert Working Group (EWG), which propose a completely revamped, centralized Whois system with much more verification and not much to benefit registrants.
To paraphrase: if email verification causes so much harm, what harms could be caused by the EWG proposal?
The EWG was not stuffed with LEA or governments, however, so it couldn’t really be characterized as another set of unreasonable demands from the same entities.
An ICANN working group has come up with a proposal to completely replace the current Whois system for all gTLDs.
Outlined in 180 recommendations spread over 166 pages (pdf), it’s designed to settle controversies over Whois that have raged for 15 years or more, in one fell swoop.
But it’s a sprawling, I’d say confusing, mess that could turn domain name registration and the process of figuring out who owns a domain name into an unnecessarily bureaucratic pain in the rear.
That’s if the proposal is ever accepted by the ICANN community, which, while it’s early days, seems like a challenge.
It’s a complex document, which basically proposes rebuilding Whois from the ground up based on ideas first explored by George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Douglas Adams.
Having read it, I’ll do my best in this post to explain what the proposed Registration Data Service seems to entail and why I think it seems like a lot of hard work for very little benefit.
I note in advance as a matter of disclosure that the RDS as proposed would very possibly disenfranchise me professionally, making it harder for me to do my job. I explain why later in this post.
I also apologize in advance for, and will correct if notified of, any errors. It’s taken me a week from its publication to read and digest the proposal and I’m still not sure it’s all sunk in.
RDS would be a centralized Whois database covering all domains in all gTLDs, new and old, operated by a single entity.
What’s in an RDS record?
Under the hood, RDS records wouldn’t look a heck of a lot different than Whois records look today, in terms of what data they store.
There would be some new optional elements, such as social media user names, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same data as we’re used to seeing in Whois records today.
The big difference is which of these elements would be visible by default to an anonymous internet user doing a regular Whois look-up somewhere.
Some fields would be “public” and some would be “gated” or hidden. Some fields would always be public and some could be toggled between public and gated by the registrant.
Gated fields would not be visible to people doing normal Whois look-ups. To see gated data, you’d need to be accredited to a certain role (cop, trademark owner, etc) and have an RDS account.
By default, much of the data about the “registrant” — including their name, physical address, country, and phone number — would be gated.
No, you’re not reading that wrong — the name of the registrant would be hidden from regular Whois users by default. Their email address, however, would be always be public.
There would also be up to six “Purpose Based Contacts” — an Admin Contact, a Legal Contact, a Technical Contact, an Abuse Contact, a Privacy/Proxy Contact and a Business Contact.
So, for example, a registrant could specify his registrar as his technical PBC and his lawyer as his legal PBC.
The admin, legal, technical and abuse contacts would be mandatory, and would default to the registrant’s own personal contact info.
A newly registered domain would not be activated in the DNS until the mandatory PBCs had been provided.
Each of these four mandatory PBCs would have different levels of disclosure for each data element.
For example, the Admin PBC would be able to hide their mailing address and phone number (both public by default) but not their name, email address or country.
The Legal PBC would not be able to opt out of having their mailing address disclosed, but the Technical and Abuse PBCs would be able to opt out of disclosing pretty much everything including their own name.
Those are just examples. Several tables starting on page 49 of the report (pdf) give all the details about which data fields would be disclosed and which could be hidden.
I think it’s expected by the EWG that most registrants would just accept the defaults and publish the same data in each PBC, in much the same way as they do today.
“This PBC approach preserves simplicity for Registrants with basic contact needs and offers additional granularity for Registrants with more extensive contact needs,” the EWG says.
Who gets the see the hidden stuff?
In order to see the hidden or “gated” elements, you’d have to be an accredited user of the centralized RDS system.
The level of access you got to the hidden data would depend on the role assigned to your RDS account.
The name of the registrant, for example, would be available to anyone with an RDS account.
If you wanted access to the registrant’s mailing address or phone number, you’d need an RDS account that accredited you for one or more of seven defined purposes:
- Domain Name Control (ie, the registrant herself)
- Domain Name Certification (ie SSL Certificate Authorities)
- Business Domain Name Purchase/Sale (anyone who says they might be interested in buying the domain in question)
- Academic/Public Interest DNS Research
- Legal Actions (eg lawyers investigating fraud or trademark infringement)
- Regulatory/Contractual Enforcement (could be ICANN-related, such as UDRP, or unrelated stuff like tax investigations)
- Criminal Investigation/DNS Abuse Mitigation
Hopefully this all makes sense so far, but it gets more complicated.
Beware of the leopard!
In today’s gTLD environment, Whois records are either stored with the registry or the registrar. You can do Whois lookups on the registrar/y’s site, or via a third-party commercial service.
As a registrant, you need only interact with your registrar. As a Whois user, you don’t need to sign up for an account anywhere, unless you want value-added services from a company such as DomainTools.
Under RDS, a whole lot of other entities start to come into play.
First, there’s RDS itself — a centralized Whois replacement.
It’s basically two databases. One contains contact details, each record containing a unique Contact ID identifier. The other database maps Contact IDs to the PBCs for each gTLD domain name.
It’s unclear who’d manage this service, but it looks like IBM is probably gunning for the contract.
Second, there would be Validators.
A Validator’s job would be to collect and validate contact information from registrants and PBCs.
While registrars and registries could also act as Validators — and the EWG envisages most registrars becoming Validators — this is essentially a new entity/role in the domain name ecosystem.
Third and Fourth, we’ve got newly created Accrediting Bodies and Accreditation Operators.
These entities would be responsible for accrediting users of the RDS system (that is, people who want to do a simple goddamn Whois lookup).
The EWG explains that an Accrediting Body “establishes membership rules, terms of service, and application and enforcement processes, etc., for a given RDS User community.”
An Accreditation Operator would “create and manage RDS User accounts, issue RDS access credentials, authenticate RDS access requests, and provide first-level abuse handling”.
Because it’s not complicated enough already, each industry (lawyers, academics, police, etc) would have their own different combination of Accrediting Bodies and Accreditation Operators.
Who benefits from all this?
The reason the EWG was set up in the first place was to try to resolve the conflict between those who think Whois accuracy should be more strictly enforced (generally law enforcement and IP owners) and those who think there should be greater registrant privacy (generally civil society types).
In the middle you’ve got the registries and registrars, who are generally resistant to anything that adds friction to their shopping carts or causes even moderate implementation costs.
The debate has been raging for years, and the EWG was told to:
1) define the purpose of collecting and maintaining gTLD registration data, and consider how to safeguard the data, and 2) provide a proposed model for managing gTLD directory services that addresses related data accuracy and access issues, while taking into account safeguards for protecting data.
So the EWG proposal could be seen as successful if a) privacy advocates are happy and b) trademark lawyers and the FBI are happy, c) registrars/ries are happy and d) Whois users are happy.
Are the privacy dudes happy?
No, they’re not.
The EWG only had one full-on privacy advocate: Stephanie Perrin, who’s a bit of a big deal when it comes to data privacy in Canada, having held senior privacy roles in public and private sectors there.
Perrin isn’t happy. Perrin thinks the RDS proposal as it stands won’t protect regular registrants’ privacy.
She wrote a Dissenting Report that seems to have been intended as an addendum to the EWG’s official report, but it was not published by the EWG or ICANN. The EWG report makes only a vague, fleeting reference, in a footnote, to the fact that the was any dissent at all.
Milton Mueller at the Internet Governance Project got his hands on it regardless and put it out there earlier this week.
Perrin disagrees with the recommendation (outlined above) that each domain name must have a Legal Contact (or Legal PBC) who is not permitted to hide their name and mailing address from public view.
She argues, quite reasonably I think, that regular registrants don’t have lawyers they can outsource this function to, which means their own name and mailing address will comprise their publicly visible Legal PBC.
This basically voids any privacy protection they’d get from having these details “gated” in the “registrant” record of the RDS. Perrin wrote:
the purpose of the gate is to screen out bad actors from harassing innocent registrants, deter identity theft, and ensure that only legitimate complaints arrive directly at the door of the registrants. It is also to protect the ability of registrants to express themselves anonymously. Placing all contact data outside the gate defeats certain aspects of having a gate in the first place.
The EWG report envisages the use of privacy/proxy services for people who don’t want their sensitive data published publicly.
But we already have privacy/proxy services today, so I’m unclear what benefit RDS brings to the table in terms of privacy protection.
It’s also worth noting that there are no circumstances under which a registrant’s email address is protected, not even from anonymous RDS queries. So there’s no question of RDS stopping Whois-based spam.
Are the trademark dudes going to be happy?
I don’t know. They do seem to be getting a better deal out of the recommendations than the other side (there were at least three intellectual property advocates on the EWG) but if you’re in the IP community the report still leaves much to be desired.
The RDS proposal would create a great big centralized repository of domain registrant information, which would probably be located in a friendly jurisdiction such as the US.
That would make tracking down miscreants a bit easier than in today’s distributed Whois environment.
RDS would also include a WhoWas service, so users can see who has historically owned domain names, and a Reverse Query service, so that users can pull up a list of all the other domains that share the same contact field(s).
Both services (commercially available via the likes of DomainTools already) would prove valuable when collating data for a UDRP complaint or cybersquatting lawsuit.
But it’s important to note that while the EWG report says all contact information should be validated, it stops short of saying that it should be authenticated.
That’s a big difference. Validation would reveal whether a mailing address actually exists, but not whether the registrant actually lives there.
You’d need authentication — something law enforcement and IP interests have been pushing for but do not seem to have received with the EWG proposal — for that.
The EWG suggests that giving registrants more control over which bits of their data are public will discourage them from providing phony contact information for Whois/RDS.
The RDS proposes a lot more carrot than stick on this count.
But if Perrin is correct that it’s a false comfort (given that your name and address will be published as Legal PBC anyway) then wouldn’t a registrant be just as motivated to call themselves Daffy Duck, or use a proxy/privacy service, as they are today?
Are the registrar dudes going to be happy?
If the EWG’s recommendations become a reality registrars could get increased friction in their sales path, depending on how disruptive it is to create a “Contact ID” and populate all the different PBCs.
I think it’s certainly going to increase demand on support channels, as customers try to figure out the new regime.
Remember, the simple requirement to click on a link in an email is causing registrants and registrars all kinds of bother, including suspended domains, under recently introduced rules.
And there’s obviously going to be a bunch of (potentially costly) up-front implementation work registrars will need to do to hook themselves into RDS and the other new entities the system relies on.
I doubt the registrars are going to wholeheartedly embrace the proposal en masse, in other words.
Is Kevin Murphy happy?
No, I’m not happy.
It bugs me, personally, that the EWG completely ignored the needs of the media in its report. It strikes me as a bit of a slap in the face.
The “media” and “bloggers” (I’m definitely in one of those categories) would be given the same rights to gated RDS data as the “general public”, under the EWG proposal.
In other words, no special privileges and no ability to access the registrant name and address fields of an RDS record.
That can’t be cool, can it?
Murphy, brah, why you gotta cuss in your headline?
Good question. I do use swearwords on DI occasionally, but only to annoy people who don’t like them, and usually only in posts dated April 1 or in stories that seem to deserve it.
This post is dated June 13.
I think I’ve established that the EWG’s proposal as it stands today is a pretty big overhaul of the current system and that it’s not immediately obvious how the benefits to all sides warrant the massive effort that will have to be undertaken to get RDS to replace Whois.
But the clusterfuckery is going to begin not with the implementation of the proposal, but with the attempt to pass it through the ICANN process.
The proposal has to pass through the ICANN community before becoming a reality.
The Expert Working Group has no power under the ICANN bylaws.
It was created by Chehade while he was still relatively new to the CEO’s job and did not yet appreciate how seriously community members take their established procedures for creating policy.
I think it was a pretty decent idea — getting a bunch of people in a room and persuading them to think outside the box, in an effort to find radical solutions to a a long-stagnant debate.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the EWG’s proposals don’t become law until they’ve been subject to the Generic Names Supporting Organization’s lengthy Policy Development Process.
Some GNSO members were not happy when the EWG was first announced — they thought their sovereignty was being usurped by the uppity new CEO — and they’re probably not going to be happy about some of the language the EWG has chosen to use in its final report.
The EWG said:
The proposed RDS, while not perfect, reflects carefully crafted and balanced compromises with interdependent elements that should not be separated.
The RDS should be adopted as a whole. Adopting some but not all of the design principles recommended herein undermines benefits for the entire ecosystem.
It’s actually quite an audacious turn of phrase for a working group with no actual authority under ICANN bylaws.
It sounds a bit like “take it or leave it”.
But there’s no chance whatsoever of the report being adopted wholesale.
It’s going into the GNSO process, where the same vested interests (IP, LEA, registry, registrar, civil society) that have kept the debate stagnant for the duration of ICANN’s existence will continue to try (and probably fail) to come to an agreement about how Whois should evolve.
The Chinese registrar BizCN has received its first breach notice from ICANN’s compliance department, following a sustained campaign by anti-abuse activist KnujOn.
The notice concerns Whois accuracy, specifically for the domain names rapetube.org and onlinepharmacy4.org, and a bunch of other peripheral breaches of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.
The “porn” site rapetube.org was the subject of a Washington Post article last December, in which KnujOn’s Garth Bruen said he feared the site might contain footage of actual crimes.
Bruen has been chasing BizCN about Whois inaccuracy, and specifically the rapetube.org domain, since 2011.
He said in a September 2013 CircleID post that he’s filed Whois inaccuracy complaints about the domain with ICANN “multiple times”.
His campaign against ICANN Compliance led to an Ombudsman complaint (which was rejected) last year.
Now Compliance appears to be taking the case more seriously. ICANN, according to the breach notice, has been on BizCN’s case about rapetube.org’s Whois since March 24 this year.
At that time, the name was registered to a Vietnamese name with a French address and phone number and a contact email address at privacy-protect.cn.
According to Bruen’s interview with the Post, this email address bounced and nobody answered the phone number. The privacy-protect.cn domain does not appear to currently resolve.
ICANN evidently has some unspecified “information” that shows the email “does not appear to be a valid functioning email address”.
But BizCN told ICANN April 2 that it had verified the registrant’s contact information with the registrant, and provided ICANN with correspondence it said demonstrated that.
ICANN says the correspondence it provided actually predated KnujOn’s latest complaint by six months.
In addition, when BizCN forwarded a scanned copy of the registrant’s ID card, ICANN suspected it to be a fake. The notice says:
Registrar provided copies of correspondence between the reseller and registrant. The response included the same email address that was still invalid according to information available to ICANN, and included a copy of a government identification card to confirm the registrant’s address. According to information available to ICANN, the identification card did not conform to any current or previous form of government identification for that jurisdiction.
Despite repeated follow-up calls, ICANN said it still has not received an adequate response from BizCN, so its accreditation is now in jeopardy.
BizCN has something like 450,000 gTLD names under management and is in the top 50 registrars by volume.
As for rapetube.org, it’s still registered with BizCN, but its Whois changed to a Russian company “Privat Line LLP”, at privatlinellp.me, on or about April 17.
That change is not going to help BizCN, however, which is being asked to provide evidence that it took “reasonable steps to investigate and reasonable steps to correct the Whois inaccuracy claims”.
It has until May 29 to sort out the breaches or face termination. Read the breach notice here.
“Tens of thousands” of web sites are going dark due to ICANN’s new email verification requirements and registrars are demanding to know how this sacrifice is helping solve crimes.
These claims and demands were made in meetings between registrars and ICANN’s board and management at the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore last week.
Go Daddy director of policy planning James Bladel and Tucows CEO Elliot Noss questioned the benefit of the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement during a Tuesday session.
The 2013 RAA requires registrars to verify that registrants’ email addresses are accurate. If registrants do not respond to verification emails within 15 days, their domains are turned off.
There have been many news stories and blog posts recounting how legitimate webmasters found their sites gone dark due to an overlooked verification email.
Just looking at my Twitter stream for an “icann” search, I see several complaints about the process every week, made by registrants whose web sites and email accounts have disappeared.
Noss told the ICANN board that the requirement has created a “demonstrable burden” for registrants.
“If you cared to hear operationally you would hear about tens and hundreds of thousands of terrible stories that are happening to legitimate businesses and individuals,” he said.
Noss told DI today that Tucows is currently compiling some statistics to illustrate the scale of the problem, but it’s not yet clear what the company plans to do with the data.
At the Singapore meeting, he asked ICANN to go to the law enforcement agencies that demanded Whois verification in the first place to ask for data showing that the new rules are also doing some good.
“What crime has been forestalled?” he said. “What issues around fraud? We heard about pedophilia regularly from law enforcement. What has any of this done to create benefits in that direction?”
Registrars have a renewed concern about this now because there are moves afoot in other fora, such as the group working on new rules for privacy and proxy services, for even greater Whois verification.
Bladel pointed to an exchange at the ICANN meeting in Durban last July, during which ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade suggested that ICANN would not entertain requests for more Whois verification until law enforcement had demonstrated that the 2013 RAA requirements had had benefits.
The exact Chehade line, from the Durban public forum transcript, was:
law enforcement, before they ask for more, we put them on notice that they need to tell us what was the impact of what we did for them already, which had costs on the implementers.
Quoted back to himself, in Singapore Chehade told Bladel: “It will be done by London.”
Speaking at greater length, director Mike Silber said:
What I cannot do is force law enforcement to give us anything. But I think what we can do is press the point home with law enforcement that if they want more, and if they want greater compliance and if they want greater collaborations, it would be very useful to show the people going through the exercise what benefits law enforcement are receiving from it.
So will law enforcement agencies be able to come up with any hard data by London, just a few months from now?
It seems unlikely to me. The 2013 RAA requirements only came into force in January, so the impact on the overall cleanliness of the various Whois databases is likely to be slim so far.
I also wonder whether law enforcement agencies track the accuracy of Whois in any meaningfully quantitative way. Anecdotes and color may not cut the mustard.
But it does seem likely that the registrars are going to have data to back up their side of the argument — customer service logs, verification email response rates and so forth — by London.
They want the 2013 RAA Whois verification rules rethought and removed from the contract and the ICANN board so far seems fairly responsive to their concerns.
Law enforcement may be about to find itself on the back foot in this long-running debate.