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The most-read stories of 2018

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2019, Domain Services

Happy 2019!

As we crawl, dark-eyed and slurring, from our festive hibernation, I thought now would be a good time to do a quick reminder of 2018, in the form of a top-10 list of the most-read stories published by DI over the last 12 months.

If not today, then when?

I’ve excluded, as usual, articles that seem to show up prominently in my traffic logs every single day simply because Google seems to think they’ve got porn in them.

Stéphane Van Gelder dies after motorcycle accident

Stéphane Van Gelder was a registrar industry pioneer and long-time ICANN community leader, and his untimely death in a vehicle accident in March came as a great shock to many. The fact that this post was the most-read of the year is not surprising. He is missed by many, and was subsequently posthumously awarded ICANN’s Multistakeholder Ethos Award.

Has the world’s biggest new gTLD registry gone bankrupt?

This speculative post from June came about after I discovered that a court-appointed administrator had taken over ownership of all TLDs in the Famous Four Media portfolio. It later turned out that FFM had in fact been removed by investors in true portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners, which created a new company, GRS Domains, to take over. The full details of this evidently bitter boardroom fight have yet to emerge.

Donuts freezes .place gTLD ahead of new geofencing rules

Perhaps a surprising entry on the list, this story detailed how Donuts had essentially taken .place off the market in preparation for a planned repurposing of the gTLD to tie into the emerging “geofencing” infrastructure. The freeze happened in May, and as far as I can tell .place is still in limbo as the technology back-end is finalized, which may account for this post’s popularity.

ICANN number two Atallah is new CEO of Donuts

Not long after Donuts was acquired by a private equity fund partly controlled by former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, I received a tip-off that his former number two, Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah, had been headhunted to be the registry’s new CEO. It was officially confirmed a few hours later, but not before the unwashed hordes (that’s you) had given the DI server something to think about. The perception of a revolving door between ICANN and industry raised eyebrows, including from the US government.

Google’s .app gTLD beats .porn to biggest sunrise yet

Google’s eagerly anticipated .app gTLD hit the market mid-year, and got off to a strong start with a sunrise period beaten only by defensive-heavy .porn. It’s very likely the strongest sunrise period of the 2012 round so far. The TLD has something like 350,000 domains under management today, which for new gTLDs is pretty much a success story.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

This story about GoDaddy and DomainTools fighting about whether the latter could get unmitigated access to the former’s Whois database was published in January, long before the full impact of GDPR on Whois privacy was known, and therefore now, with the benefit of hindsight, feels hopelessly naive.

How all 33 European ccTLDs are handling GDPR

Good grief, did I write a “listicle”? To mark the day GDPR came into full effect, I trawled through the web sites, news releases and policy documents of 33 European ccTLDs to see how each registry was planning to comply with the strict new privacy legislation, so you didn’t have to. The results were surprisingly diverse.

Google’s $25 million .app domain finally has a launch date

Remember how I said .app was “eagerly anticipated”? The fact that this post, merely noting the TLD’s launch timetable, hit the top 10 most-read stories for the year is perhaps proof of that.

Facebook clashes with registrars after massive private data request

Many big brands were unhappy with how ICANN and the industry turned off their unfettered Whois access following GDPR, none more so than Facebook, which has been piling pressure on ICANN to force registrars to acquiesce to its data requests. This July story revealed how it had started using a close intermediary called AppDetex to bombard registrars with over-broad disclosure requests. Registrars subsequently fought back, and AppDetex later gave me a demo of its early-stage software. The fight, no doubt, continues.

These 33 people will decide the future of Whois

Another GDPR listicle? In this July post I prepared brief bios of the volunteers selected to work on ICANN’s first Expedited Policy Development Process working group, which is challenged with coming up with a permanent policy solution to GDPR, amenable to all sections of the community. Needless to say, they’re still working on it…

That’s the top 10 most-read articles on DI in 2018. Honorable mentions go to Fight breaks out as Afilias eats Neustar’s Aussie baby, How a single Whois complaint got this registrar shitcanned and Some men at ICANN meetings really are assholes, simply because I like the headlines.

Happy new year to all DI readers. I don’t tell you this nearly regularly enough, but I really do love you all more than words could possibly describe.

Exclusive gang of 10 to work on making ICANN the Whois gatekeeper

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2018, Domain Services

Ten people have been picked to work on a system that would see ICANN act as the gatekeeper for private Whois data.

The organization today announced the composition of what it’s calling the Technical Study Group on Access to Non-Public Registration Data, or TSG-RD.

As the name suggests, the group is tasked with designing a system that would see ICANN act as a centralized access point for Whois data that, in the GDPR era, is otherwise redacted from public view.

ICANN said such a system:

would place ICANN in the position of determining whether a third-party’s query for non-public registration data ought to be approved to proceed. If approved, ICANN would ask the appropriate registry or registrar to provide the requested data to ICANN, which in turn would provide it to the third party. If ICANN does not approve the request, the query would be denied. 

There’s no current ICANN policy saying that the organization should take on this role, but it’s one possible output of the current Expedited Policy Development Process on Whois, which is focusing on how to bring ICANN policy into compliance with GDPR.

The new group is not going to make the rules governing who can access private Whois data, it’s just to create the technical framework, using RDAP, that could be used to implement such rules.

The idea has been discussed for several months now, with varying degrees of support from contracted parties and the intellectual property community.

Registries and registrars have cautiously welcomed the notion of a central ICANN gateway for Whois data, because they think it might make ICANN the sole “data controller” under GDPR, reducing their own legal liability.

IP interests of course leap to support any idea that they think will give them access to data GDPR has denied them.

The new group, which is not a formal policy-making body in the usual ICANN framework, was hand-picked by Afilias CTO Ram Mohan, at the request of ICANN CEO Goran Marby.

As it’s a technical group, the IP crowd and other stakeholders don’t get a look-in. It’s geeks all the way down. Eight of the 10 are based in North America, the other two in the UK. All are male. A non-zero quantity of them have beards.

  • Benedict Addis, Registrar Of Last Resort.
  • Gavin Brown, CentralNic.
  • Jorge Cano, NIC Mexico.
  • Steve Crocker, former ICANN chair.
  • Scott Hollenbeck, Verisign.
  • Jody Kolker, GoDaddy.
  • Murray Kucherawy, Facebook.
  • Andy Newton, ARIN.
  • Tomofumi Okubo, DigiCert.

While the group is not open to all-comers, it’s not going to be secretive either. Its mailing list is available for public perusal here, and its archived teleconferences, which are due to happen for an hour every Tuesday, can be found here. The first meeting happened this week.

Unlike regular ICANN work, the new group hopes to get its work wrapped up fairly quickly, perhaps even producing an initial spec at the ICANN 64 meeting in Kobe, Japan, next March.

For ICANN, that’s Ludicrous Speed.

First chance to have your say on the future of Whois

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2018, Domain Policy

RIP: the Whois Admin.

Standard Whois output is set to get slimmed down further under newly published policy proposals.

The community working group looking at post-GDPR Whois has decided that the Admin Contact is no longer necessary, so it’s likely to get scrapped next year.

This is among several recommendations of the Expedited Policy Development Process working group on Whois, which published its initial report for public comment late Wednesday.

As expected, the report stops short of addressing the key question of how third-parties such as intellectual property interests, domain investors, security researchers and the media could get streamlined access to private Whois data.

Indeed, despite over 5,000 person-hours of teleconferences and face-to-face meetings and about 1,000 mailing list messages since work began in early August, the EPDP’s 50 members have yet to reach consensus on many areas of debate.

What they have reached is “tentative agreement” on 22 recommendations on how to bring current ICANN Whois policy into line with EU privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation.

The work is designed to replace the current Temporary Specification, a Band-Aid imposed by the ICANN board of directors, which is due to expire next May.

The EPDP initial report proposes a few significant changes to what data is collected and publicly displayed by the Whois system.

The most notable change is the complete elimination of the Admin Contact fields.

Currently, Whois contains contact information for the registrant, admin contact and technical contact. It’s often the same data replicated across all three records, and under the Temp Spec the large majority of the data is redacted.

Under the EPDP’s proposal, the Admin Contact is superfluous and should be abandoned altogether. Not only would it not be displayed, but registrars would not even collect the data.

The Tech Contact is also getting a haircut. Registrars would now only be able to collect name, phone and email address, and it would be optional for the registrant whether to provide this data at all. In any event, all three fields would be redacted from public Whois output.

For the registrant, all contact information except state/province and country would be redacted.

There’s no agreement yet on whether the optional “organization” field would be redacted, but the group has agreed that registrars should provide better guidance to registrants about whether they need to provide that data.

While data on legal persons such as companies is not protected by GDPR, some fear that natural person registrants may just naively type their own name into that box when registering a name, inadvertently revealing their identities to the public.

Those providing Whois output would be obliged, as they are under the Temp Spec, to publish an anonymized email address or web-based contact form to allow users to contact registrants without personal information being disclosed.

That German lawsuit

The recommendation to slash what data is collected could have an impact on ICANN’s lawsuit against Tucows’ German subsidiary, EPAG.

ICANN is suing EPAG after the registrar decided that collecting admin and tech contact info was not compliant with GPDR. It’s been looking, unsuccessfully, for a ruling forcing the company to carry on collecting this data.

Tucows is of the view that if the admin and tech contacts are third parties to the registration agreement, it has no right to collect data about them under the GDPR.

If ICANN’s own community policy development process is siding with Tucows, this could guide ICANN’s future legal strategy, but not, it appears, until it becomes firm consensus policy.

I asked ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey about whether the EPDP’s work could affect the lawsuit during an interview October 5, shortly after it became clear that the admin/tech contact days might be numbered.

“Maybe,” he said. “If it becomes part of the policy we’ll have to assess that. Until there’s a new policy though, what we’re working with is the Temp Spec. The Temp Spec we believe is enforceable, we believe have the legal support for that, and we’ll continue down that path.”

(It might be worth noting that Thomas Rickert, whose law firm represents EPAG in this case, is on the EPDP working group in his capacity of head of domains for German trade group eco. He is, of course, just one of the 31 EPDP members developing these recommendations at any given time.)

IP wheel-spinning

The main reason it’s taken the EPDP so long to reach the initial report stage — the report was originally due during the ICANN 63 Barcelona meeting a month ago — has been the incessant bickering between those advocating for, and opposing, the rights of intellectual property interests to access private Whois data.

EPDP members from the IP Constituency and Business Constituency have been attempting to future-proof the work by getting as many references to IP issues inserted into the recommendations as they can, before the group has turned its attention to addressing them specifically.

But they’ve been opposed every step of the way by the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which is concerned the IP lobby is trying to policy its way around GDPR as it relates to Whois.

Many hours have been consumed by these often-heated debates.

My feeling is that the NCSG has been generally winning, but probably mainly because the working group’s charter forbade discussion about access until other issues had been addressed.

As it stands today, the initial report contains this language in Recommendation #2:

Per the EPDP Team Charter, the EPDP Team is committed to considering a system for Standardized Access to non-public Registration Data once the gating questions in the charter have been answered. This will include addressing questions such as:

• What are the legitimate purposes for third parties to access registration data?

• What are the eligibility criteria for access to non-public Registration data?

• Do those parties/groups consist of different types of third-party requestors?

• What data elements should each user/party have access to?

In this context, amongst others, disclosure in the course of intellectual property infringement and DNS abuse cases will be considered

This is basically a placeholder to assure the IP crowd that their wishes are still on the table for future debate — which I don’t think was ever in any doubt — but even this basic recommendation took hours to agree to.

The EPDP’s final report is due February 1, so it has just 70 days to discuss this hypothetical “Standardized Access” model. That’s assuming it started talks today, which it hasn’t.

It’s just nine weeks if we assume not a lot is going to happen over the Christmas/New Year week (most of the working group come from countries that celebrate these holidays).

For context, it’s taken the working group about 115 days just to get to the position it is in today.

Even if Standardized Access was the only issue being discussed — and it’s not, the group is also simultaneously going to be considering the public comment on its initial report, for starters — this is an absurdly aggressive deadline.

I feel fairly confident in predicting that, come February 1, there will be no agreement on a Standardized Access framework, at least not one that would be close to implementable.

Have your say

All 22 recommendations, along with a long list of questions, have now been put out for public comment.

The working group is keen to point out that all comments should provide rationales, and consider whether what they’re asking for would be GDPR-compliant, so comments along the lines of “Waaah! Whois should be open!” will likely be rapidly filed to the recycle bin.

It’s a big ask, considering that most people have just a slim grasp of what GDPR compliance actually means.

Complicating matters, ICANN is testing out a new way to process public comments this time around.

Instead of sending comments in by email, which has been the norm for two decades, a nine-page Google form has been created. This is intended to make it easier to link comments to specific recommendations. There’s also a Word version of the form that can be emailed.

Given the time constraints, it seems like an odd moment to be testing out new processes, but perhaps it will streamline things as hoped. We’ll see.

This is how AppDetex works

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2018, Domain Services

A small brand-protection registrar with a big friend caused quite a stir at ICANN 63 here in Barcelona this week, after accusing registrars for the second time of shirking their duties to disclose private Whois data to trademark owners.

AppDetex, which has close ties to Facebook, has sent something like 9,000 Whois requests to registrars over the last several months, then complained to ICANN last week that it only got a 3% response rate.

Registrars cried foul, saying that the company’s requests are too vague to action and sometimes seem farcical, suggesting an indiscriminate, automated system almost designed to be overly burdensome to them.

In chats with DI this week, AppDetex CEO Faisal Shah, general counsel Ben Milam and consultant Susan Kawaguchi claimed that the system is nowhere near as spammy as registrars think, then showed me a demo of their Whois Requester product that certainly seemed to support that claim.

First off, Whois Requester appears to be only partially automated.

Tucows had noted in a letter to ICANN that it had received requests related to domains including lincolnstainedglass.com and grifflnstafford.com, which contain strings that look a bit like the “Insta” trademark but are clearly not cybersquatting.

“That no human reviewed these domains was obvious, as the above examples are not isolated,” Tucows CEO Elliot Noss wrote.

“It is abundantly clear to us that the requests we received were generated by an automated system,” Blacknight CEO Michele Neylon, who said he had received similarly odd requests, wrote in his own letter.

But, according to AppDetex, these assumptions are not correct.

Only part of its service is automated, they said. Humans — either customers or AppDetex in-house “brand analysts” — were involved in sending out all the Whois requests generated via its system.

AppDetex itself does not generate the lists of domains of concern for its clients, they said. That’s done separately, using unrelated tools, by the clients themselves.

It’s possible these could be generated from zone files, watch services, abuse reports or something else. The usage of the domain, not just its similarity to the trademark in question, would also play a role.

Facebook, for example, could generate its own list of domains that contain strings matching, partially matching, or homographically similar to its trademarks, then manually input those domains into the AppDetex tool.

The product features the ability to upload lists of domains in bulk in a CSV file, but Kawaguchi told me this feature has never been used.

Once a domain has been input to main Whois Requester web form, a port 43 Whois lookup is automatically carried out in the background and the form is populated with data such as registrar name, Whois server, IANA number and abuse email address.

At this point, human intervention appears to be required to visually confirm whether the Whois result has been redacted or not. This might require also going to the registrar’s web-based Whois, as some registrars return different results over port 43 compared to their web sites.

If a redacted record is returned, users can then select the trademark at issue from a drop-down (Whois Requestor stores its’ customers trademark information) and select a “purpose” from a different drop-down.

The “purposes” could include things like “trademark investigation” or “phishing investigation”. Each generates a different piece of pre-written text to be used in the template Whois request.

Users can then choose to generate, manually approve, and send off the Whois request to the relevant registrar abuse address. The request may have a “form of authorization” attached — a legal statement that AppDetex is authorized to ask for the data on behalf of its client.

Replies from registrars are sent to an AppDetex email address and fed into a workflow tool that looks a bit like an email inbox.

As the demo I saw was on the live Whois Requester site with a dummy account, I did not get a view into what happens after the initial request has been sent.

Registrars have complained that AppDetex does not reply to their responses to these initial requests, which is a key reason they believe them frivolous.

Shah and Milam told me that over the last several months, if a registrar reply has included a request for additional information, the Whois Requester system has been updated with a new template for that registrar, and the request resent.

This, they said, may account for duplicate requests registrars have been experiencing, though two registrars I put this to dispute whether it fits with what they’ve been seeing.

The fact that human review is required before requests are sent out “just makes it worse”, they also said.

ICANN denies it’s in bed with trademark lawyers

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN chair Cherine Chalaby has strongly denied claims from non-commercial stakeholders that its attitude to Whois reform is “biased” in favour of “special interests” such as trademark lawyers.

In a remarkably fast reply (pdf) to a scathing October 17 letter (pdf) from the current and incoming chairs of the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, Chalaby dismissed several of the NCSG’s claims of bias as “not true”.

The NCSG letter paints ICANN’s efforts to bring Whois policy into line with the General Data Protection Regulation as rather an effort to allow IP owners to avoid GDPR altogether.

It even suggests that ICANN may be veering into content regulation — something it has repeatedly and specifically disavowed — by referring to how Whois may be used to combat “fake news”.

The “demonstrated intention of ICANN org has been to ensure the unrestrained and unlawful access to personal data demanded by special interest groups”, the NCSG claimed.

It believes this primarily due to ICANN’s efforts to support the idea of a “unified access model” — a way for third parties with “legitimate interests” to get access to private Whois data.

ICANN has produced a couple of high-level framework documents for such a model, and CEO Goran Marby has posted articles playing up the negative effects of an inaccessible Whois.

But Marby has since insisted that a unified access model is still very much an “if”, entirely dependent on whether the community, in the form of the Whois EPDP working group, decides there should be one.

That message was reiterated in Chalaby’s new letter to the NCSG.

The conversation on whether to adopt such a model must continue, but the outcomes of those discussions are for the community to decide. We expect that the community, using the bottom-up multistakeholder model, will take into account all stakeholders’ views and concerns.

He denied that coordinating Whois data is equivalent to content regulation, saying it falls squarely within ICANN’s mandate.

“ICANN’s mission related to ‘access to’ this data has always encompassed lawful third-party access and use, including for purposes that may not fall within ICANN’s mission,” he wrote.

The exchange of letters comes as parties on the other side of the Whois debate also lobby ICANN and its governmental advisors over the need for Whois access.

ICANN 63, Day 0 — registrars bollock DI as Whois debate kicks off

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2018, Domain Policy

Blameless, cherubic domain industry news blogger Kevin Murphy received a bollocking from registrars over recent coverage of Whois reform yesterday, as he attended the first day of ICANN 63, here in Barcelona.

Meanwhile, the community working group tasked with designing this reform put in a 10-hour shift of face-to-face talks, attempting to craft the language that will, they hope, bring ICANN’s Whois policy into line with European privacy law.

Talks within this Expedited Policy Development Process working group have not progressed a massive amount since I last reported on the state of affairs.

They’re still talking about “purposes”. Basically, trying to write succinct statements that summarize why entities in the domain name ecosystem collect personally identifiable information from registrants.

Knowing why you’re collecting data, and explaining why to your customers, is one of the things you have to do under the General Data Protection Regulation.

Yesterday, the EPDP spent pretty much the entire day arguing over what the “purposes” of ICANN — as opposed to registries, registrars, or anyone else — are.

The group spent the first half of the day trying to agree on language explaining ICANN’s role in coordinating DNS security, and how setting policies concerning third-party access to private Whois data might play a role in that.

The main sticking point was the extent to which these third parties get a mention in the language.

Too little, and the Intellectual Property Constituency complains that their “legitimate interests” are being overlooked; too much, and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group cries that ICANN is overstepping its mission by turning itself into a vehicle for trademark enforcement.

The second half of the day was spent dealing with language explaining why collecting personal data helps to establish ownership of domains, which is apparently more complicated than it sounds.

Part of this debate was over whether registrants have “rights” — such as the right to use a domain name they paid for.

GoDaddy policy VP James Bladel spent a while arguing against this legally charged word, again favoring “benefits”, but appeared to eventually back down.

It was also debated whether relatively straightforward stuff such as activating a domain in the DNS by publishing name servers can be classed as the disclosure of personal data.

The group made progress reaching consensus on both sets of purposes, but damn if it wasn’t slow, painful progress.

The EPDP group will present its current state of play at a “High Interest Topic” session on Monday afternoon, but don’t expect to see its Initial Report this week as originally planned. That’s been delayed until next month.

While the EPDP slogs away, there’s a fair bit of back-channel lobbying of ICANN board and management going on.

All the players with a significant vested interest in the outcome are writing letters, conducting surveys, and so on, in order to persuade ICANN that it either does or does not need to create a “unified access model” that would allow some parties to carry on accessing private Whois data more or less the same way as they always have.

One such effort is the one I blogged about on Thursday, shortly before heading off to Barcelona, AppDetex’s claims that registrars have ignored or not sufficiently responded to some 9,000 automated requests for Whois data that its clients (notably Facebook) has spammed them with recently.

Registrars online and in-person gave me a bollocking over the post, which they said was one-sided and not in keeping with DI’s world-renowned record of fairness, impartiality and all-round awesomeness (I’m paraphrasing).

But, yeah, they may have a point.

It turns out the registrars still have serious beef with AppDetex’s bulk Whois requests, even with recent changes that attempt to scale back the volume of data demanded and provide more clarity about the nature of the request.

They suspect that AppDetex is simply trawling through zone files for strings that partially match a handful of Facebook’s trademarks, then spamming out thousands of data requests that fail to specify which trademarks are being infringed and how they are being infringed.

They further claim that AppDetex and its clients do not respond to registrars’ replies, suggesting that perhaps the aim of the game here is to gather data not about the owner of domains but about registrars’ alleged non-compliance with policy, thereby propping up the urgent case for a unified access mechanism.

AppDetex, in its defence, has been telling registrars on their private mailing list that it wants to carry on working with them to refine its notices.

The IP crowd and registrars are not the only ones fighting in the corridors, though.

The NCSG also last week shot off a strongly worded missive to ICANN, alleging that the organization has thrown in with the IP lobby, making a unified Whois access service look like a fait accompli, regardless of the outcome of the EPDP. ICANN has denied this.

Meanwhile, cybersecurity interests have also shot ICANN the results of a survey, saying they believe internet security is suffering in the wake of ICANN’s response to GDPR.

I’m going to get to both of these sets of correspondence in later posts, so please don’t give me a corridor bollocking for giving them short shrift here.

UPDATE: Minutes after posting this article, I obtained a letter Tucows has sent to ICANN, ripping into AppDetex’s “outrageous” campaign.

Tucows complains that it is being asked, in effect, to act as quality control for AppDetex’s work-in-progress software, and says the volume of spurious requests being generated would be enough for it ban AppDetex as a “vexatious reporter”.

AppDetex’s system apparently thinks “grifflnstafford.com” infringes on Facebook’s “Insta” trademark.

UPDATE 2: Fellow registrar Blacknight has also written to ICANN today to denounce AppDetex’s strategy, saying the “automated” requests it has been sending out are “not sincere”.

Registrars still not responding to private Whois requests

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2018, Domain Policy

Registrars are still largely ignoring requests for private Whois data, according to a brand protection company working for Facebook.

AppDetex wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to say that only 3% of some 9,000 requests it has made recently have resulted in the delivery of full Whois records.

Almost 60% of these requests were completely ignored, the company claimed, and 0.4% resulted in a request for payment.

You may recall that AppDetex back in July filed 500 Whois requests with registrars on behalf of client Facebook, with which it has a close relationship.

Then, only one registrar complied to AppDetex’s satisfaction.

Company general counsel Ben Milam now tells ICANN that more of its customers (presumably, he means not just Facebook) are using its system for automatically generating Whois requests.

He also says that these requests now contain more information, such as a contact name and number, after criticism from registrars that its demands were far too vague.

AppDetex is also no longer demanding reverse-Whois data — a list of domains owned by the same registrant, something not even possible under the old Whois system — and is limiting each of its requests to a single domain, according to Milam’s letter.

Registrars are still refusing to hand over the information, he wrote, with 11.4% of requests creating responses demanding a legal subpoena or UDRP filing.

The company reckons this behavior is in violation of ICANN’s Whois Temporary Specification.

The Temp Spec says registrars “must provide reasonable access to Personal Data in Registration Data to third parties on the basis of a legitimate interests pursued by the third party”.

The ICANN community has not yet come up with a sustainable solution for third-party access to private Whois. It’s likely to be the hottest topic at ICANN 63 in Barcelona, which kicks off this weekend.

Whois records for gTLD domains are of course, post-GDPR, redacted of all personally identifiable information, which irks big brand owners who feel they need it in order to chase cybersquatters.

Here’s what ICANN’s boss is saying about Whois access now

Kevin Murphy, October 4, 2018, Domain Policy

Should ICANN become the sole source for looking up private domain registrant data? That’s one of the options for the post-GDPR world of Whois currently being mulled over on Waterfront Drive.

ICANN CEO Goran Marby laid out some of ICANN’s current thinking on the future of Whois last week at an occasionally combative meeting in Los Angeles.

One idea would see ICANN act as a centralized gatekeeper for all Whois data. Another could risk ICANN becoming much more tightly controlled by governments.

I’ve listened to the recordings, read the transcripts, chatted to participants, and I’m going to attempt to summarize what I believe is the current state of play.

As regular DI readers know, post-GDPR Whois policy is currently being debated to a tight deadline by an Expedited Policy Development Process working group.

The work has been a tough slog, and there seems to be little hope of the EPDP closing all of its outstanding issues before its first conclusions are due under three weeks from now.

One of the outstanding issues not yet addressed in any depth by the group is the potential creation of a “unified access model” — a standardized way cops, trademark owners, cybersecurity professionals and others could look at the same Whois data they could look at just a few months ago.

While the EPDP has carried on deferring discussion of such a model, ICANN Org has in parallel been beavering away trying to figure out whether it’s even going to be legally possible under the new European privacy law to open up Whois data to the people who want to see it, and it’s come up with some potentially game-changing ideas.

After weeks of conference calls, the EPDP working group — made up of 30-odd volunteers from all sections of the ICANN community — met in LA for three days last week to get down to some intensive face-to-face arguments.

I gather the meeting was somewhat productive, but it was jolted by the publication of an ICANN blog post in which Marby attempted to update the community on ICANN’s latest efforts to get clarity on how GDPR legally interacts with Whois.

Marby wrote that ICANN “wants to understand whether there are opportunities for ICANN, beyond its role as one of the ‘controllers’ with respect to WHOIS or its contractual enforcement role, to be acknowledged under the law as the coordinating authority of the WHOIS system.”

What did ICANN mean by this? While “controller” is a term of art defined in mind-numbing detail by the GDPR, “coordinating authority” is not. So ICANN’s blog post was open to interpretation.

It turns out I was not the only person confused by the post, and on Tuesday afternoon last week somebody from the EPDP team collared Marby in the corridor at ICANN HQ and dragged him into the meeting room to explain himself.

He talked with them for about an hour, but some attendees were still nonplussed — some sounded downright angry — after he left the room.

This is what I gleaned from his words.

No End-Runs

First off, Marby was at pains to point out, repeatedly, that ICANN is not trying to bypass the community’s Whois work.

It’s up to the community — currently the EPDP working group, and in a few weeks the rest of you — to decide whether there should be a unified access model for Whois, he explained.

What ICANN Org is doing is trying to figure out is whether a unified access model would even be legal under GDPR and how it could be implemented if it is legal, he said.

“If the community decides we should have a policy about a unified access model, that’s your decision,” he told the group. “We are trying to figure out the legal avenues if it’s actually possible.”

He talked about this to persons unknown at the European Commission in Brussels last month.

Whatever ICANN comes up with would merely be one input to the community’s work, he said. If it discovers that a unified access model would be totally illegal, it will tell the community as much.

Marby said ICANN is looking for “a legal framework for how can we diminish the contracted parties’ legal responsibility” when it comes to GDPR.

So far, it’s come up with three broad ideas about how this could happen.

The Certification Body Idea

GDPR sections 40 to 43 talk about the concepts of “codes of conduct” and “certification bodies”.

It’s possible that ICANN was referring to the possibility of itself becoming a certification body when it blogged about being a “coordinating authority”. Marby, during the EPDP meeting, unhelpfully used the term “accreditation house”.

These hypothetical entities (as far as I know none yet exist) would be approved by either national data protection authorities or the pan-EU European Data Protection Board to administer certification schemes for companies that broadly fall into the same category of data processing businesses.

It seems to be tailor-made for ICANN (though it wasn’t), which already has accreditation of registries and registrars as one of its primary activities.

But this legal avenue does not appear to be a slam-dunk. ICANN would presumably have to persuade a DPA or two, or the EDPB, that giving third parties managed access to citizens’ private data is a good thing.

You’d think that DPAs would be dead against such an idea, but the EU members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee have put their names to advice stating that Whois should remain accessible under certain circumstances, so it’s not impossible they could see it ICANN’s way.

The C.R.A.P. Idea

Marby’s second idea for taking some of the GDPR burden off the shoulders of contracted parties is to basically make ICANN a proxy, or man-in-the-middle, for Whois queries.

“What would happen if ICANN Org legally is the only place you can ask a question through?” he said. “And the only ones that the contracted parties actually can answer a question to would be ICANN Org? Would that move the legal responsibility away from the contracted parties to ICANN Org?”

In many ways, this is typical domain industry tactics — if there’s a rule you don’t want to follow, pass it off to a proxy.

This model was referred to during the session by EPDP members as the “hub and spoke” or “starfish”. I think the starfish reference might have been a joke.

Marby, in a jocular callback to the “Calzone” and “Cannoli” Whois proposals briefly debated in the community earlier this year, said that this model had a secret ICANN-internal code-name that is “something to do with food”.

Because whenever I’ve tried to coin a phrase in the past it has never stuck, I figure this time I may as well go balls-out and call it the “Cuisine-Related Access Plan” for now, if for no other reason than the acronym will briefly annoy some readers.

Despite the name I’ve given it, I don’t necessarily dislike the idea.

It seems to be inspired by, or at least informed by, side-channel communications between Marby and the Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency, which are both no doubt mightily pissed off that the EPDP has so far proven surprisingly resilient to their attempts to get Whois access into the policy discussions as early as possible.

Two months ago, a few influential IP lawyers proposed to Marby (pdf) a centralized Whois model in which registrars collect data from registrants then pass it off to ICANN, which would be responsible for deciding who gets to see it.

Forget “thin” versus “thick” Whois — this one would be positively, arguably dangerously, obese. Contracted parties would be relegated to “processors” of private data under GDPR, with ICANN the sole “controller”.

Benefits of this would include, these lawyers said, reducing contracted parties’ exposure to GDPR.

It’s pretty obvious why the IP lobby would prefer this — ICANN is generally much more amenable to its demands than your typical registry or registrar, and it would very probably be easier to squeeze data out of ICANN.

While Marby specifically acknowledged that ICANN has taken this suggestion as one of its inputs — and has run it by the DPAs — he stopped well short of fully endorsing it during last week’s meeting in LA.

He seemed to instead describe a system whereby ICANN acts as the gatekeeper to the data, but the data is still stored and controlled at the registry or registrar, saying: “We open a window for access to the data so the data is still at the contracted parties because they use that data for other reasons as well”.

The Insane Idea

The third option, which Marby seemed to characterize as the least “sane” of the three, would be to have Whois access recognized by law as a public interest, enabling the Whois ecosystem to basically ignore GDPR.

Remember, back on on GDPR Day, I told you about how the .dk ccTLD registry is carrying on publishing Whois as normal because a Danish law specifically forces it to?

Marby’s third option seems to be a little along those lines. He specifically referred to Denmark and Finland (which appears to have a similar rule in place) during the LA session.

If I understand correctly, it seems there’d have to be some kind of “legal action” in the EU — either legislation in a member state, or perhaps something a little less weighty — that specifically permitted or mandated the publication of otherwise private Whois data in gTLD domains.

Marby offered trademark databases and telephone directories as examples of data sets that appear to be exempt from GDPR protection due to preexisting legislation.

One problem with this third idea, some say, is that it could bring ICANN policy under the direct jurisdiction of a single nation state, something that it had with the US government for the best part of two decades and fought hard to shake off.

If ICANN was given carte blanche to evade GDPR by a piece of legislation in, say, Lithuania, would not ICANN and its global stakeholders forever be slaves to the whims of the Lithuanian legislature?

And what if that US bill granting IP interests their Whois wet dream passes onto the statute books and ICANN finds itself trapped in a jurisdictional clusterfuck?

Oh, my.

Fatuous Conclusion For The Lovely People Who Generously Bothered To Read To The End

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of any of this, but to be honest I’m not convinced the lawyers do either.

If you think you do, call me. I want to hear from you. I’m “domainincite” on Skype. Cheers.

Mediators hired as Whois reformers butt heads

Kevin Murphy, September 17, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has hired professional mediators to help resolve strong disagreements in the working group tasked with reforming Whois for the post-GDPR world.

Kurt Pritz, chair of the Expedited Policy Development Process for Whois, last week told the group that ICANN has drafted in the Consensus Building Institute, with which it has worked before, to help “narrow issues and reach consensus”.

Three CBI mediators will brief the EPDP group today, and join them when the WG meets face-to-face for the first time at a three-day session in Los Angeles later this month.

Their goal is not to secure any particular outcome, but to help the disparate viewpoints find common ground, Pritz told the group.

It’s been Pritz’s intention to get the mediators in since day one — he knew in advance how divisive Whois policy is — but it’s taken until now to get the contracts signed.

The EPDP WG’s job is to create a new, privacy-conscious, consensus Whois policy that will apply to all gTLD registries and registrars. Its output will replace ICANN’s post-GDPR Temporary Specification for Registration Data, which in turn replaced the longstanding Whois policy attached to all ICANN registry and registrar contracts.

Since the working group first convened in early August — about 500 emails and 24 hours of painful teleconferences ago — common ground has been hard to find, and in fact the EPDP group did not even attempt to find consensus for the first several weeks of discussions.

Instead, they worked on its first deliverable, which was finalized last week, a “triage report” that sought to compile each faction‘s opinion of each section of ICANN’s Temp Spec.

The idea seemed sensible at the time, but with hindsight it’s arguable whether this was the best use of the group’s time.

The expectation, I believe, was that opposing factions would at least agree on some sections of text, which could then be safely removed from future debate.

But what emerged instead was this, a matrix of disagreement in which no part of the Temp Spec did not have have at least one group in opposition: Triage Table

The table is potentially misleading, however. Because groups were presented with a binary yes/no option for each part of the spec, “no” votes were sometimes recorded over minor language quibbles where in fact there was agreement in principle.

By restricting the first few weeks of conversation to the language of the Temp Spec, the debate was arguably prematurely hamstrung, causing precious minutes to trickle away.

And time is important — the EPDP is supposed to deliver its consensus-based Initial Report to the ICANN 63 meeting in Barcelona about five weeks from now.

That’s going to be tough.

What’s becoming increasingly clear to me from the post-triage talks is that the WG’s task could be seen as not much less than a wholesale, ground-up, reinvention of the Whois wheel, recreated with GDPR as the legal framework.

Who is Whois for?

Discussions so far have been quite mind-expanding, forcing some fundamental rethinking of long-held, easy assumptions, at least for this lurker. Here’s an example.

One of the fundamental pillars of GDPR is the notion of “purposes”. Companies that collect private data on individuals have to do so only with specific, enumerated purposes in mind.

The WG has started by discussing registrars. What purpose does a registrar have when it collects Whois data from its registrants?

None whatsoever, it was claimed.

“To execute the contract between the registrant and the registrar, it’s really not necessary for registrars to collect any of this information,” GoDaddy head of policy James Bladel, representing registrars, told the group on its latest call Thursday.

Registrars collect data on their customers (not just contact data, but also stuff like credit card details) for billing and support purposes, but this is not the same as Whois data. It’s stored separately and never published anywhere. While covered by GDPR, it’s not covered by Whois policy.

Whois data is only collected by registrars for third parties’ purposes, whether that third party be a registry, ICANN, a data escrow agent, a cop, or an intellectual property enforcer.

“Other than a few elements such as domain name servers, there is nothing that is collected in Whois that is needed for the registrar to do their business,” At-Large Advisory Committee chair Alan Greenberg told the WG. “All of them are being collected for their availability to third parties, should they need it.”

While this may seem like a trivial distinction, drawing a hard line between the purposes of registries, registrars and ICANN itself on the one hand and law enforcement, cybersecurity and IP lawyers on the other is one of the few pieces of concrete advice ICANN has received from European data protection regulators.

There’s by no means unanimous agreement that the registrars’ position is correct, but it’s this kind of back-to-basics discussion that makes me feel it’s very unlikely that the EPDP is going to be able to produce an Initial Report with anything more than middling consensus by the October deadline.

I may be overly pessimistic, but (mediators or no mediators) I expect its output will be weighted more towards outlining and soliciting public comment on areas of disagreement than consent.

And the WG has not yet even looked in depth at the far thornier issue of “access” — the policy governing when third parties such as IP lawyers will be able to see redacted Whois data.

Parties on the pro-access side of the WG have been champing at the bit to bring access into the debate at every opportunity, but have been

Hey, look, a squirrel!

The WG has also been beset by its fair share of distractions, petty squabbles and internal power struggles.

The issues of “alternates” — people appointed by the various constituencies to sit in on the WG sessions when the principles are unavailable — caused some gnashing of teeth, first over their mailing list and teleconference privileges and then over how much access they should get to the upcoming LA meeting.

Debates about GDPR training — which some say should have been a prerequisite to WG participation — have also emerged, after claims that not every participant appeared clued-in as to what the law actually requires. After ICANN offered a brief third-party course, there were complaints that it was inadequate.

Most recently, prickly Iranian GAC rep Kavouss Arasteh last week filed a formal Ombudsman complaint over a throwaway god-themed pun made by Non-Com Milton Mueller, and subsequently defended by fellow non-resident Iranian Farzaneh Badii, in the Adobe Connect chat room at the September 6 meeting.

Mueller has been asked to apologize.

Beginning of the end for DomainTools? Court orders it to scrub Whois records

Kevin Murphy, September 13, 2018, Domain Registries

DomainTools has been temporarily banned from collecting and publishing the Whois records of all .nz domains.

A Washington court yesterday handed down a preliminary injunction against the company, after New Zealand’s Domain Name Commission sued it in July for scraping and republishing its Whois in violation of its terms of service.

Notably — especially if you’re involved in the ongoing Whois reform debate — Judge Robert Lasnik’s scathing order (pdf) rubbished DomainTools’ claims that its historical Whois service provides a public interest benefit that outweighs the privacy interests of .nz registrants.

The ruling by its own admission also potentially opens the floodgates for other registries and registrars to obtain injunctions against DomainTools for the own customers.

DomainTools has been “enjoined from accessing the .nz register while DomainTools’ limited license remains revoked and/or publishing any .nz register data DomainTools had stored or compiled in its own databases”.

DNC, the policy body that oversees .nz registry InternetNZ, had alleged that DomainTools had created a “secondary or shadow register” by bulk-downloading Whois records.

Since mid-2016, each .nz Whois record has contained a notice that such behavior is prohibited, and Lasnik agreed that DomainTools must surely have been aware of this.

Lasnik further agreed with DNC that DomainTools’ service is “sabotaging” its efforts to bring more privacy protection to .nz customers; since November last year it has offered individuals the ability to opt out of having their private data published, an offer 23,000 people have taken up.

That was enough for the judge to conclude that DNC’s case had met the “irreparable harm” test required for an injunction.

He was less impressed with DomainTools’ argument that implementing the injunction would take many months and cost it up to $3.5 million.

“Defendant can presumably filter the .nz data using relatively simple database tools,” he wrote, ordering DNC to post a “nominal” $1,000 bond to cover DT’s potential losses.

Lasnik also said the public interest would be better served by permitting registrant privacy than by serving the interests of DomainTools’ cybsecurity and law enforcement customers:

defendant argues that the products it creates from its meticulously collected register data are critical cybersecurity resources and that the public interest would be harmed if the reports provided to government, financial, and law enforcement entities were incomplete because the .nz data were excised. The .nz register is comparatively small, however (approximately 710,000 domains compared with over 135,000,000 .com domains), and the defendant and its customers can access the registration information directly through plaintiff’s website if it appears that a bad actor is using an .nz domain. On the other hand, the .nz registrants’ privacy and security interests are compromised as long as defendant is publishing non-current or historical .nz information out of its database. The Court finds that the public has an interest in the issuance of an injunction.

While arguably limited to historical Whois records, it’s a rare example of judicial commentary on the privacy rights of registrants and may well play into the ongoing debate about Whois in the post-GDPR world.

Even if it turns out not to have wider policy implications, the legal implications for DomainTools are potentially devastating.

While .nz has only about 710,000 domains under management, and is but one of over 1,500 TLDs, DomainTools, DNC and Judge Lasnik all seem to agree that the floodgates for further litigation may have now opened. Lasnik wrote:

defendant argues that a preliminary injunction in this case could start an avalanche of litigation as other registers attempt to protect the privacy of their registrants. If defendant built a business by downloading, storing, and using data from other registers in violation of the terms that governed its access to that data, defendant may be correct — other registers may be encouraged to pursue a breach of contract claim if plaintiff is successful here. It would be ironic, however, if a plaintiff who has shown a likelihood of success and irreparable injury were deprived of preliminary relief simply because defendant may have acted wrongfully toward others as well

DNC said in a statement: “Managers of other countries domain name systems across the world will want to pay attention to the judgment. This may raise confidence to fight their own cases should DomainTools be breaching their terms of use.”

The case has yet to go to court, but the fact that DNC won the injunction indicates that the judge believes it has a likelihood of winning.