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ICANN offers to split the cost of GAC “safeguards” with new gTLD registries

Kevin Murphy, June 28, 2013, Domain Policy

All new gTLD applicants will have to abide by stricter rules on security and Whois accuracy under government-mandated changes to their contracts approved by the ICANN board.

At least one of the new obligations is likely to laden new gTLDs registries with additional ongoing costs. In another case, ICANN appears ready to shoulder the financial burden instead.

The changes are coming as a result of ICANN’s New gTLD Program Committee, which on on Tuesday voted to adopt six more pieces of the Governmental Advisory Committee’s advice from March.

This chunk of advice, which deals exclusively with security-related issues, was found in the GAC’s Beijing communique (pdf) under the heading “Safeguards Applicable to all New gTLDs”.

Here’s what ICANN has decided to do about it.

Mandatory Whois checks

The GAC wanted all registries to conduct mandatory checks of Whois data at least twice a year, notifying registrars about any “inaccurate or incomplete records” found.

Many new gTLD applicants already offered to do something similar in their applications.

But ICANN, in response to the GAC advice, has volunteered to do these checks itself. The NGPC said:

ICANN is concluding its development of a WHOIS tool that gives it the ability to check false, incomplete or inaccurate WHOIS data

Given these ongoing activities, ICANN (instead of Registry Operators) is well positioned to implement the GAC’s advice that checks identifying registrations in a gTLD with deliberately false, inaccurate or incomplete WHOIS data be conducted at least twice a year. To achieve this, ICANN will perform a periodic sampling of WHOIS data across registries in an effort to identify potentially inaccurate records.

While the resolution is light on detail, it appears that new gTLD registries may well be taken out of the loop completely, with ICANN notifying their registrars instead about inaccurate Whois records.

It’s not the first time ICANN has offered to shoulder potentially costly burdens that would otherwise encumber registry operators. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit from new gTLD applicants for this.

Contractually banning abuse

The GAC wanted new gTLD registrants contractually forbidden from doing bad stuff like phishing, pharming, operating botnets, distributing malware and from infringing intellectual property rights.

These obligations should be passed to the registrants by the registries via their contracts with registrars, the GAC said.

ICANN’s NGPC has agreed with this bit of advice entirely. The base new gTLD Registry Agreement is therefore going to be amended to include a new mandatory Public Interest Commitment reading:

Registry Operator will include a provision in its Registry-Registrar Agreement that requires Registrars to include in their Registration Agreements a provision prohibiting Registered Name Holders from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law, and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities including suspension of the domain name.

The decision to include it as a Public Interest Commitment, rather than building it into the contract proper, is noteworthy.

PICs will be subject to a Public Interest Commitment Dispute Resolution Process (PICDRP) which allows basically anyone to file a complaint about a registry suspected of breaking its commitments.

ICANN would act as the enforcer of the ruling, rather than the complainant. Registries that lose PICDRP cases face consequences up to an including the termination of their contracts.

In theory, by including the GAC’s advice as a PIC, ICANN is handing a loaded gun to anyone who might want to shoot down a new gTLD registry in future.

However, the proposed PIC language seems to be worded in such a way that the registry would only have to include the anti-abuse provisions in its contract in order to be in compliance.

Right now, the way the PIC is worded, I can’t see a registry getting terminated or otherwise sanctioned due to a dispute about an instance of copyright infringement by a registrant, for example.

I don’t think there’s much else to get excited about here. Every registry or registrar worth a damn already prohibits its customers from doing bad stuff, if only to cover their own asses legally and keep their networks clean; ICANN merely wants to formalize these provisions in its chain of contracts.

Actually fighting abuse

The third through sixth pieces of GAC advice approved by ICANN this week are the ones that will almost certainly add to the cost of running a new gTLD registry.

The GAC wants registries to “periodically conduct a technical analysis to assess whether domains in its gTLD are being used to perpetrate security threats such as pharming, phishing, malware, and botnets.”

It also wants registries to keep records of what they find in these analyses, to maintain a complaints mechanism, and to shut down any domains found to be perpetrating abusive behavior.

ICANN has again gone the route of adding a new mandatory PIC to the base Registry Agreement. It reads:

Registry Operator will periodically conduct a technical analysis to assess whether domains in the TLD are being used to perpetrate security threats, such as pharming, phishing, malware, and botnets. Registry Operator will maintain statistical reports on the number of security threats identified and the actions taken as a result of the periodic security checks. Registry Operator will maintain these reports for the term of the Agreement unless a shorter period is required by law or approved by ICANN, and will provide them to ICANN upon request.

You’ll notice that the language is purposefully vague on how registries should carry out these checks.

ICANN said it will convene a task force or GNSO policy development process to figure out the precise details, enabling new gTLD applicants to enter into contracts as soon as possible.

It means, of course, that applicants could wind up signing contracts without being fully apprised of the cost implications. Fighting abuse costs money.

There are dozens of ways to scan TLDs for abusive behavior, but the most comprehensive ones are commercial services.

ICM Registry, for example, decided to pay Intel/McAfee millions of dollars — a dollar or two per domain, I believe — for it to run daily malware scans of the entire .xxx zone.

More recently, Directi’s .PW Registry chose to sign up to Architelos’ NameSentry service to monitor abuse in its newly relaunched ccTLD.

There’s going to be a fight about the implementation details, but one way or the other the PIC would make registries scan their zones for abuse.

What the PIC does not state, and where it may face queries from the GAC as a result, is what registries must do when they find abusive behavior in their gTLDs. There’s no mention of mandatory domain name suspension, for example.

But in an annex to Tuesday’s resolution, ICANN’s NGPC said the “consequences” part of the GAC advice would be addressed as part of the same future technical implementation discussions.

In summary, the NGPC wants registries to be contractually obliged to contractually oblige their registrars to contractually oblige their registrants to not do bad stuff, but there are not yet any obligations relating to the consequences, to registrants, of ignoring these rules.

This week’s resolutions are the second big batch of decisions ICANN has taken regarding the GAC’s Beijing communique.

Earlier this month, it accepted some of the GAC’s direct advice related to certain specific gTLDs it has a problem with, the RAA and intergovernmental organizations and pretended to accept other advice related to community objections.

The NGPC has yet to address the egregiously incompetent “Category 1” GAC advice, which was the subject of a public comment period.

Whois headed for the scrap heap in “paradigm shift”

Kevin Murphy, June 25, 2013, Domain Policy

Whois’ days are numbered.

An “Expert Working Group” assembled by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade has proposed that the old Whois service we all love to hate be scrapped entirely and replaced with something (possibly) better.

After several months of deliberations the EWG today issued an audacious set of preliminary recommendations that would completely overhaul the current system.

Registrants’ privacy might be better protected under the new model, and parties accessing Whois data would for the first time have obligations to use it responsibly.

There’d also be a greater degree of data validation than we have with today’s Whois, which may appease law enforcement and intellectual property interests.

The new concept may also reduce costs for registries and registrars by eliminating existing Whois service obligations.

The EWG said in its report:

After working through a broad array of use cases, and the myriad of issues they raised, the EWG concluded that today’s WHOIS model—giving every user the same anonymous public access to (too often inaccurate) gTLD registration data—should be abandoned.

Instead, the EWG recommends a paradigm shift whereby gTLD registration data is collected, validated and disclosed for permissible purposes only, with some data elements being accessible only to authenticated requestors that are then held accountable for appropriate use.

The acronym being proposed is ARDS, for Aggregated Registration Data Services.

For the first time, gTLD registrant data would be centralized and maintained by a single authority — likely a company contracted by ICANN — instead of today’s mish-mash of registries and registrars.

The ARDS provider would store frequently cached copies of Whois records provided by registries and registrars, and would be responsible for validating it and handling accuracy complaints.

To do a Whois look-up, you’d need access credentials for the ARDS database. It seems likely that different levels of access would be available depending on the user’s role.

Law enforcement could get no-holds-barred access, for example, while regular internet users might not be able to see home addresses (my example, not the EWG’s).

Credentialing users may go some way to preventing Whois-related spam.

A centralized service would also provide users with a single, more reliable and uniform, source of registrant data.

Registrars and registries would no longer have to provide Whois over port 43 or the web, potentially realizing cost savings as a result, the EWG said.

For those concerned about privacy, the EWG proposes two levels of protection:

  • An Enhanced Protected Registration Service for general personal data privacy needs; and
  • A Maximum Protected Registration Service that offers Secured Protected Credentials Service for At-Risk, Free-Speech uses.

If I understand the latter category correctly, the level privacy protection could even trump requests for registrant data from law enforcement. This could be critical in cases of, for example, anti-governmental speech in repressive regimes.

The proposed model would not necessarily kill off existing privacy/proxy services, but such services would come under a greater degree of ICANN regulation than they are today.

It appears that there’s a lot to like about the EWG’s concepts, regardless of your role.

It is very complex, however. The devil, as always, will be in the details. ARDS is going to need a lot of careful consideration to get right.

But it’s a thought-provoking breakthrough in the age-old Whois debate, all the more remarkable for being thrown together, apparently through a consensus of group members, in such a short space of time.

The EWG’s very existence is somewhat controversial; some say it’s an example of Chehade trying to circumvent standard procedures. But it so far carries no official weight in the ICANN policy-making process.

Its initial report is currently open for public comment either via email direct to the group or planned webinars. After it is finalized it will be submitted to the ICANN board of directors.

The board would then thrown the recommendations at the Generic Names Supporting Organization for a formal Policy Development Process, which would create a consensus policy applicable to all registries and registrars.

With all that in mind, it’s likely to be a few years before (and if) the new model becomes a reality.

New registrar contract could be approved next week

ICANN’s board of directors is set to vote next week on the 2013 Registrar Accreditation agreement, but we hear some last-minute objections have emerged from registrars.

The new RAA has been about two years in the making. It will make registrars verify email addresses and do some rudimentary mailing address validation when new domains are registered.

It will also set in motion a process for ICANN oversight of proxy/privacy services and some aspects of the reseller business. In order to sell domain names in new gTLDs, registrars will have to sign up to the 2013 RAA.

ICANN has put approval of the contract on its board’s June 27 agenda.

But I gather that some registrars are unhappy about some last-minute changes ICANN has made to the draft deal.

For one, some linguistic tweaks to the text have given registrars an “advisory” role in seeking out technical ways to do the aforementioned address validation, which has caused some concern that ICANN may try to mandate expensive commercial solutions without their approval.

There also appears to be some concern that the new contract now requires registrars to make sure their resellers follow the same rules on proxy/privacy services, which wasn’t in previous drafts.

Nominet brings back second-level .uk proposal

Nominet has resurrected Direct.uk, its plan to allow people to register domain names directly under .uk.

But the proposal, which was killed off in February, has been significantly revised in response to complaints from domain investors and others.

The idea is one of a collection being announced by Nominet this afternoon.

It’s also proposing to shake up how it accredits .uk registrars and, borrowing a page from the current ICANN playbook, how .uk registrant Whois information is verified.

Second-level domains make a comeback

If the Direct.uk proposal is approved and you own a .co.uk, .me.uk or .org.uk domain name, you’ll get rights to the matching .uk name, according to Nominet COO Eleanor Bradley.

“The registrant of oldest current domain name at the third level will have first right of refusal to register that name at the second level,” she said.

When a .uk is contested by, for example, the owners of matching .co.uk and .org.uk domains, the older registration would win the name.

The clock on registration period is reset to the date of the current registration if the domain has ever dropped before, but not if it’s been transferred between registrants, she said.

This change may settle some of the concerns emerging from the domain investor community, which was outraged by Nominet’s original plan to give trademark holders first rights to .uk names.

Giving the .uk and .co.uk to different people would stand to confuse internet users, they said, not to mention devaluing their portfolios.

It wasn’t just domainers that stood to lose out under the old plan, however.

British domainer Edwin Hayward compiled a some examples of big brands that have invested in generic .co.uk domains but do not own matching trademarks, meaning they would not necessary get the second-level.

Barclays owns bank.co.uk and Kellogg owns breakfast.co.uk, for examples. Under the new Nominet proposal, it looks like these companies would get first dibs on the matching .uk addresses.

“We feel we’re responding to the feedback we heard, but it’s also our strong view that registrations at the second level are really important for what we do to maintain the relevance of .uk going forward,” Bradley said.

Plans to ramp up Whois verification

The revamped plan will also see Nominet drop its demands for mandatory extra security features under second-level .uk names.

Some critics had said that this would ghettoize .co.uk by suggesting it’s not secure.

Instead, the company is proposing blanket Whois verification for the whole of .uk — second and third-level — and a suite of optional security services to be provided in-house and via partners.

The Whois checks will take the form of email verification, in much the same way as ICANN has proposed for gTLDs in its new Registrar Accreditation agreement.

Nominet also plans to check physical mailing addresses against public databases to make sure they’re genuine. This apparently already happens to an extent.

Three tiers of registrar

The company today also unveiled plans for three types of registrar: Self-Managed, Channel Partner and Accredited Channel Partner.

Self-Managed would be domainers and big corporate users that manage their own portfolios. Channel Partners would be the vanilla registrars we know today, and Accredited would have been certified as having a certain level of security and Whois quality, among other things.

Existing registrars could do nothing and become Channel Partners, or migrate to one of the other two tiers, Bradley said.

Those in the Self-Managed and Accredited tiers would get free inter-registrant transfers, she said. Accredited registrars would also be trusted to handle their own Whois verification.

The proposals are still currently proposals, but it sounds like Nominet is determined to get it right this time.

The Direct.uk consultation is not expected to be over until November, so we’re not likely to see any movement until next year.

Cops say new gTLDs shouldn’t launch without a Big Brother RAA

Law enforcement agencies are not happy with the proposed 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to help them catch online bad guys.

Europol and the FBI told ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee yesterday that people need to have their full identities verified before they’re allowed to register domain names.

They added that new gTLDs shouldn’t be allowed to launch until a tougher RAA is agreed to and signed by registrars.

The draft 2013 RAA would force registrars to validate their customers’ email addresses or phone numbers after selling them a domain, but law enforcement thinks this is not enough.

“We need a bit more in this area,” Troels Oerting, head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre, told the GAC during a Sunday session. “We need a bit more to be verified in addition to the phone or email.”

“It’s very, very important that we are able to identify perpetrators able, to identify the originators, and it’s not enough that you just put in the email or phone,” he said.

He added that there should also be re-verification procedures and ongoing compliance monitoring from ICANN, and said that only registrars signing the 2013 RAA should be allowed to sell new gTLD domains.

Europol has sent a letter to ICANN (not yet published, it seems) outlining four areas it wants to see the RAA “improved”, Oerting said.

Given that many GAC members, including the US, seem to support this position, it’s yet another threat to ICANN’s new gTLD launch timetable, not to mention privacy and anonymous speech in general.

The law enforcement recommendations are not new, of course. They’ve been in play and GAC-endorsed for many years, but were watered down during ICANN’s RAA talks with registrars.