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Should .com get a thick Whois?

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2011, Domain Registries

The ICANN community has taken another baby step towards pushing VeriSign into implementing a “thick” Whois database for .com and .net domain names.

The GNSO Council yesterday voted to ask ICANN to prepare an Issue Report exploring whether to require “all incumbent gTLDs” to operate a thick Whois. Basically, that means VeriSign.

The .com and .net registries currently run on a “thin” model, whereby each accredited registrar manages their own Whois databases.

Most other gTLDs today run thick registries, as will all registries approved by ICANN under its forthcoming new gTLDs program.

The thinness of .com can cause problems during inter-registrar transfers, when gaining and losing registrars have no central authoritative database of registrant contact details to rely upon.

In fact, yesterday’s GNSO vote followed the recommendations of a working group that decided after much deliberation that a thick .com registry may help reduce bogus or contested transfers.

Trusting registrars to manage their own Whois is also a frequent source of frustration for law enforcement, trademark interests and anti-spam firms.

Failure to maintain a functional web-based or port 43 Whois interface is an often-cited problem when ICANN’s compliance department terminates rogue registrars.

Now that an Issue Report has been requested by the GNSO, the idea of a thick .com moves closer to a possible Policy Development Process, which in turn can create binding ICANN consensus policies.

There’s already a clause in VeriSign’s .com registry agreement that gives ICANN the right to demand that it creates a centralized Whois database.

Switching to a thick model would presumably not only transfer responsibility to VeriSign, but also cost and liability, which is presumably why the company seems to be resisting the move.

Don’t expect the changes to come any time soon.

Writing the Issue Report is not expected to be a priority for ICANN staff, due to their ongoing chronic resource problems, and any subsequent PDP could take years.

The alternative – for ICANN and VeriSign to come to a bilateral agreement when the .com contract comes up for renewal next year – seems unlikely given that ICANN did not make a similar requirement when .net was renegotiated earlier this year.

Hot topics for ICANN Singapore

Kevin Murphy, June 17, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s 41st public meeting kicks off in Singapore on Monday, and as usual there are a whole array of controversial topics set to be debated.

As is becoming customary, the US government has filed its eleventh-hour saber-rattling surprises, undermining ICANN’s authority before its delegates’ feet have even touched the tarmac.

Here’s a high-level overview of what’s going down.

The new gTLD program

ICANN and the Governmental Advisory Committee are meeting on Sunday to see if they can reach some kind of agreement on the stickiest parts of the Applicant Guidebook.

They will fail to do so, and ICANN’s board will be forced into discussing an unfinished Guidebook, which does not have full GAC backing, during its Monday-morning special meeting.

It’s Peter Dengate Thrush’s final meeting as chairman, and many observers believe he will push through some kind of new gTLDs resolution to act as his “legacy”, as well as to fulfill the promise he made in San Francisco of a big party in Singapore.

My guess is that the resolution will approve the program in general, lay down some kind of timetable for its launch, and acknowledge that the Guidebook needs more work before it is rubber-stamped.

I think it’s likely that the days of seemingly endless cycles of redrafting and comment are over for good, however, which will come as a relief to many.

Developing nations

A big sticking point for the GAC is the price that new gTLD applicants from developing nations will have to pay – it wants eligible, needy applicants to get a 76% discount, from $185,000 to $44,000.

The GAC has called this issue something that needs sorting out “as a matter of urgency”, but ICANN’s policy is currently a flimsy draft in desperate need of work.

The so-called JAS working group, tasked with creating the policy, currently wants governmental entities excluded from the support program, which has made the GAC, predictably, unhappy.

The JAS has proven controversial in other quarters too, particularly the GNSO Council.

Most recently, ICANN director Katim Touray, who’s from Gambia, said the Council had been “rather slow” to approve the JAS’s latest milestone report, which, he said:

might well be construed by many as an effort by the GNSO to scuttle the entire process of seeking ways and means to provide support to needy new gTLD applicants

This irked Council chair Stephane Van Gelder, who rattled off a response pointing out that the GNSO had painstakingly followed its procedures as required under the ICANN bylaws.

Watch out for friction there.

Simply, there’s no way this matter can be put to bed in Singapore, but it will be the topic of intense discussions because the new gTLD program cannot sensibly launch without it.

The IANA contract

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration wants to beef up the IANA contract to make ICANN more accountable to the NTIA and, implicitly, the GAC.

Basically, IANA is being leveraged as a way to make sure that .porn and .gay (and any other TLD not acceptable to the world’s most miserable regimes) never make it onto the internet.

If at least one person does not stand up during the public forum on Thursday to complain that ICANN is nothing more than a lackey of the United States, I’d be surprised. My money’s on Khaled Fattal.

Vertical integration

The eleventh hour surprise I referred to earlier.

The US Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, informed ICANN this week that its plan to allow gTLD registries such as VeriSign, Neustar and Afilias to own affiliated registrars was “misguided”.

I found the letter (pdf) utterly baffling. It seems to say that the DoJ would not be able to advise ICANN on competition matters, despite the fact that the letter itself contains a whole bunch of such advice.

The letter has basically scuppered VeriSign’s chances of ever buying a registrar, but I don’t think anybody thought that would happen anyway.

Neustar is likely to be the most publicly annoyed by this, given how vocally it has pursued its vertical integration plans, but I expect Afilias and others will be bugged by this development too.

The DoJ’s position is likely to be backed up by Europe, now that the NTIA’s Larry Strickling and European Commissioner Neelie Kroes are BFFs.

Cybercrime

Cybercrime is huge at the moment, what with governments arming themselves with legions of hackers and groups such as LulzSec and Anonymous knocking down sites like dominoes.

The DNS abuse forum during ICANN meetings, slated for Monday, is usually populated by pissed-off cops demanding stricter enforcement of Whois accuracy.

They’ve been getting louder during recent meetings, a trend I expect to continue until somebody listens.

This is known as “engaging”.

Geek stuff

IPv6, DNSSEC and Internationalized Domain Names, in other words. There are sessions on all three of these important topics, but they rarely gather much attention from the policy wonks.

With IPv6 and DNSSEC, we’re basically looking at problems of adoption. With IDNs, there’s impenetrably technical stuff to discuss relating to code tables and variant strings.

The DNSSEC session is usually worth a listen if you’re into that kind of thing.

The board meeting

Unusually, the board’s discussion of the Guidebook has been bounced to Monday, leading to a Friday board meeting with not very much to excite.

VeriSign will get its .net contract renewed, no doubt.

The report from the GAC-board joint working group, which may reveal how the two can work together less painfully in future, also could be interesting.

Anyway…

Enough of this blather, I’ve got a plane to catch.

Does Obama endorse Whois privacy?

Kevin Murphy, May 17, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government today released its latest International Strategy For Cyberspace, and it seems to acknowledge privacy rights in domain name registration.

The 30-page document (pdf) envisions a future of the internet that is “open, interoperable, secure, and reliable” and “supports international trade and commerce, strengthens international security, and fosters free expression and innovation”.

It calls for the US and its international partners to set norms that value free speech, security, privacy, respect for intellectual property and (because this is America, remember) the right to self-defense.

Domain names get a mention, in a statement that could be read, without much of a stretch of the imagination, as support in principle for private Whois records:

In this future, individuals and businesses can quickly and easily obtain the tools necessary to set up their own presence online; domain names and addresses are available, secure, and properly maintained, without onerous licenses or unreasonable disclosures of personal information.

That’s open to interpretation, of course – you could debate for years about what is “unreasonable” – but I’m surprised Whois privacy merited even an oblique reference.

Most government and law enforcement statements on the topic tend to pull in the opposite direction.

The new strategy also seems to give ICANN – or at least the ICANN model – the Administration’s support, in a paragraph worth quoting in full:

Preserve global network security and stability, including the domain name system (DNS). Given the Internet’s importance to the world’s economy, it is essential that this network of networks and its underlying infrastructure, the DNS, remain stable and secure. To ensure this continued stability and security, it is imperative that we and the rest of the world continue to recognize the contributions of its full range of stakeholders, particularly those organizations and technical experts vital to the technical operation of the Internet. The United States recognizes that the effective coordination of these resources has facilitated the Internet’s success, and will continue to support those effective, multi-stakeholder processes.

.xxx introduces the 48-hour UDRP

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2011, Domain Registries

The forthcoming .xxx top-level domain will have some of the strictest abuse policies yet, including a super-fast alternative to the UDRP for cybersquatting cases.

With ICM Registry likely to sign its registry contract with ICANN soon, I thought I’d take another look at some of its planned policies.

I’d almost forgotten how tight they were.

Don’t expect much privacy

ICM plans to verify your identity before you register a .xxx domain.

While the details of how this will be carried out have not yet been revealed, I expect the company to turn to third-party sources to verify that the details entered into the Whois match a real person.

Registrants will also have to verify their email addresses and have their IP addresses recorded.

Whois privacy/proxy services offered by registrars will have to be pre-approved by ICM, “limited to services that have demonstrated responsible and responsive business practices”.

Registrants using such services will still have their full verified details stored by the registry, in contrast to TLDs such as .com, where the true identity of a registrant is only known to the proxy service.

None of these measures are foolproof, of course, but they would raise barriers to cybersquatting not found in other TLDs.

Really rapid suspension

The .xxx domain will of course abide by the UDRP when it comes to cybersquatting complaints, but it is planning another, far more Draconian suspension policy called Rapid Takedown.

Noting that “the majority of UDRP cases involve obvious variants of well-known trademarks”, ICM says it “does not believe that the clearest cases of abusive domain registration require the expense and time involved in traditional UDRP filings.”

The Rapid Takedown policy is modeled on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Trademark holders will be able to make a cybersquatting complaint and have it heard within 48 hours.

Complaints will comprise a “simple statement of a claim involving a well-known or otherwise inherently distinctive mark and a domain name for which no conceivable good faith basis exists”.

A “response team” of UDRP panelists will decide on that basis whether to suspend the domain, although it does not appear that ownership will be transferred as a result.

X strikes and you’re out

ICM plans to disqualify repeat cybersquatters from holding any .xxx domains, whether all their domains infringe trademarks or not.

The policy is not fully fleshed out, so it’s not yet clear how many infringing domains you’d have to own before you lose your .xxx privileges.

High-volume domain investors would therefore be advised to make sure they have clean portfolios, or risk losing their whole investment.

Gaming restrictions

ICM plans to allow IP rights holders to buy long-term, deep-discount registrations for non-resolving .xxx domains. As I’ve written before, Disney doesn’t necessarily want disney.xxx to point anywhere.

That would obviously appeal to volume speculators who don’t fancy the $60-a-year registry fee, so the company plans to create a policy stating that non-resolving domains will not be able to convert to normal domains.

There’s also going to be something called the Charter Eligibility Dispute Resolution Process, which which “will be available to challenge any resolving registration to an entity that is not qualified to register a resolving name in the .xxx TLD”.

This seems to suggest that somebody (think: a well-funded church) who does not identify as a member of the porn industry would be at risk of losing their .xxx domains.

The CEDRP, like most of the abuse policies the registry is planning, has not yet been fully fleshed out.

I’m told ICM is working on that at the moment. In the meantime, its policy plans are outlined in this PDF.

DomainTools doubles prices, relaunches site

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2011, Domain Registrars

Whois specialist DomainTools has revamped its web site and raised the price of its services.

The price increase is quite substantial. The cheapest paid-for tier appears to be the $30-a-month Standard Membership, a 100% increase on the old $15 basic package.

Existing members have been grandfathered in at their current rates. DomainTools said that it’s the first price increase in five years.

It does appear that subscribers may get more bang for their buck under the new tiers. At least, my subscription appears to be buying me more services than it was before the relaunch.

But that may be because I was never entirely clear what I was paying for. The confusing old “unit”-based pricing has gone, and the new site is a lot clearer about what you get for the money.

Many of the other changes appear to be cosmetic. The site does look a bit slicker than before, while retaining its familiar look-and-feel.

The company also appears to have sorted out its dispute with Go Daddy, which recently started blocking Whois aggregators including DomainTools.

A few test look-ups I did for domains registered at Go Daddy returned full Whois results, not the stubs it was delivering following the block.

Given that registrars are allowed to charge $10,000 a year for access to bulk Whois records, I’m tempted to draw a connection between the Go Daddy situation and the price increase, but I have no hard information to support that conclusion.

UPDATE: I’ve heard from DomainTools that the Go Daddy situation has not yet been resolved.

DomainTools subscribers currently see full Whois records when they search for domains registered at Go Daddy. In order to throttle the vast majority of the traffic the site sends to Go Daddy’s servers, non-subscribers are still receiving incomplete data.

The dispute is evidently more complex than a simple $10k shakedown.