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As it releases free download, DomainTools says 68,000 dangerous coronavirus domains have been registered

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2020, Domain Services

More than 68,000 coronavirus-related domain names have been registered so far in 2020, according to data released by DomainTools today.

The domain intelligence services company has started publishing a list of these domains, updated daily, for free on its web site. You have to submit your email address to get it.

The download comprises a CSV file with three columns: domain, reg date, and Domain Risk Score.

This final field is based on DomainTools’ in-house algorithms that estimate how likely domains are likely to be used in nefarious activities, based on criteria including the domain’s connection to other, known-bad domains.

Only domains with a score of 70 or above out of 100 — indicating they will likely be used for activities such as phishing, malware or spam — will be included on the list, the company said.

The list will be updated daily at 0000 UTC.

You can find out more and obtain today’s list here.

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No .com price increases this year. Thanks, coronavirus!

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign won’t increase prices on .com or any of its other TLDs this year.
The promise comes as part of a package of coronavirus-related measures the company announced on its blog yesterday. Verisign said:

In order to support individuals and small businesses affected by this crisis, Verisign will freeze registry prices for all of our Top-Level Domains (TLDs), including .com and .net, through the end of 2020. In addition, we will soon deploy a program, available to all retail registrars, to provide support and assistance for domain name registrants whose domain names will be expiring in the coming months.

No additional details on the proposed registrant support program were made available.
The pricing news sounds good, especially for high-volume domain owners such as domainers and trademark owners, but it should be noted that in the case of .com it amounts to a mere two-month price freeze.
Under the terms of its current agreement with ICANN, it can’t raise prices at all. The controversial proposed amendments that recently attracted about 9,000 objections, would reinstate price-raising powers.
However, assuming ICANN approves the new contract, which seems likely, Verisign would only be able to up its fees in the final four years of its six-year deal. The first of those four years begins October 20 this year.
Conceivably, it could have announced a 7% price hike for .com on October 21, but the company has now said that it will not.
Verisign also said yesterday that it’s donating an “initial” $2 million to “first responders and medical personnel in the Northern Virginia area, the United Way’s COVID-19 relief efforts, and the Semper Fi & America’s Fund”.
It is also doubling the funding available to the scheme where it matches employees’ charitable donations, which could increase (and incentivize) giving to coronavirus-related causes.

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US officials gunning for coronavirus domains

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2020, Domain Registrars

US state and federal law enforcement are pursuing domain names being used to push bogus products and misinformation related to coronavirus Covid-19.
In separate actions, the US Department of Justice forced Namecheap to take down a scam site that was allegedly using fear of coronivirus to hoodwink visitors out of their cash, while the New York Attorney General has written to registrars to demand they take action against similar domains.
The DoJ filed suit (pdf) against the anonymous “John Doe” registrant of coronavirusmedicalkit.com on Saturday and on Sunday obtained a temporary restraining order obliging Namecheap to remove the DNS from the domain and lock it down, which Namecheap seems to have done.
Namecheap is not named as a defendant, but the complaint notes that the DoJ had requested the domain be taken down on March 19 and no action had been taken by the evening of March 21.
The web site in question allegedly informed visitors that the World Health Organization was giving away free coronavirus vaccines to anyone prepared to pay a $4.95 shipping fee by handing over their credit card details.
This is an identity theft scam and wire fraud, the complaint says.
Meanwhile, NYAG Letitia James has sent letters, signed by IT chief Kim Berger, to several large US registrar groups — including GoDaddy, Dynadot, Name.com, Namecheap, Register.com, and Endurance — to ask them to “stop the registration and use of internet domain names by individuals trying to unlawfully and fraudulently profit off consumers’ fears around the coronavirus disease”.
In the letter to GoDaddy (pdf), Berger asks for a “dialogue” on the following preventative measures:

  • The use of automated and human review of domain name registration and traffic patterns to identify fraud;
  • Human review of complaints from the public and law enforcement about fraudulent or illegal use of coronavirus domains, including creating special channels for such complaints;
  • Revising your terms of service to reserve aggressive enforcement for the illegal use of coronavirus domains; and
  • De-registration of the domains cited in the articles identified above that were registered at GoDaddy, and any holds in place on registering new domains related to coronavirus, or similar blockers that prevent rapid registration of coronavirus-related domains.

In other words: try to stop these domains being registered, and take them down if they are.
No specific malicious sites are listed in the letter. Rather, Berger cites a study by Check Point Software that estimates that something like 3% of the more than 4,000 coronavirus-related domains registered between January and March 5 are “malicious” in nature.

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Nominet to intercept dangerous coronavirus domains

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet, the .uk registry, will start providing informational landing pages when it suspends domains for criminal behavior including coronavirus-related scams.
The company already suspends tens of thousands of domains every year at the request of law enforcement agencies.
The vast majority are related to intellectual property infringement such as counterfitting and piracy. A substantially smaller number are suspended due to the sale of fake pharmaceuticals.
Rather than Nominet suspending these domains, stopping them resolving, they will now instead resolve to landing pages “providing consumer advice and education”.
It’s similar to how the FBI handles domains it has seized during criminal investigations in the US, but Nominet says it’s the first example in the world of such a program being rolled out by a registry.
The first LEAs taking part in the program are the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the City of London’s Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit.
While Nominet pitched the news as coronavirus-related, the timing appears to be coincidental.
The company first announced its landing page plan last October, when it was opened to public consultation.
A MHRA spokesperson said in a Nominet press release that suspended domains will redirect to its “#fakemeds website”, which currently has a great deal to say about penis pills but nothing at all to say about coronavirus.

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An open question to the domain name industry about coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2020, Domain Policy

“Don’t worry. We’ve done this before.”
That was pretty much the first sentence out of my grandmother’s mouth when I called to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.
She was talking about World War II and the immediate post-war years. She’s 94, so she saw both.
She’s no Uncle Albert. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her talk about “The War” before. Not once. But when her grandson called her for the first time in embarrassing months, that was where her mind went straight away.
They couldn’t get oranges, for years, back then. If you were diabetic, you couldn’t get sugar, but they gave you extra butter instead. She developed an aversion to canned pineapple chunks that persists to this day. She still has her ration book, a souvenir of trying times, squirreled away somewhere.
She was in generally good spirits. She knows that Covid-19, if it gets through the front door of her granny flat, will very likely be the end of her. Her mind is fully intact, but her body is all kinds of fucked up. But she and the family members who bring her food are taking the proper precautions. And, she said, she’s been self-isolating since November anyway. What’s another 12 weeks?
The WWII comparison was not at all surprising to hear, of course. A lot of us have been thinking similar things. The media is currently resplendent with uplifting examples of what we Brits refer to as the “Blitz spirit” — unity and stoicism in the face of overwhelming adversity.
There are significant differences, of course.
The enemy now is not an identifiable political faction with a skull on its cap, but a remorseless, invisible beastie. The Allies are not a collection of like-minded liberal nations, but literally the entire human species.
The baddies don’t want to shoot you. They want to infiltrate your nasal cavity and make you accidentally kill your parents with a hug. You kill them with soap.
Back then, we required young men to travel overseas to kill and potentially die to serve the greater good. We asked the women they left behind to take to the factory floors and work traditionally male jobs. Now, all we ask of them is that they don’t go down the pub on a Saturday night, and apparently sometimes even that’s too big of an ask.
Society is asking me to work from home during the day and do nothing more than watch TV and play Xbox in the evenings. Fine. I can do that. I was doing that anyway. This, apparently, is how my generation gets to save lives.
It doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.
Worldwide, people are sitting alone at home, twiddling their thumbs, watching slightly-less-than-hi-def Netflix, and wondering how they can do more to make a positive difference in this civilizational battle.
In the domain industry, we’ve recently seen the Internet Commerce Association attempt to help out people who are financially struggling due to coronavirus with its #DomainAssist Twitter campaign.
I’m not sure how effective it’s going to be, but ICA members have money, are trying to make a difference, and I’m certainly not going to knock them for it.
But there is one battle that the domain industry is uniquely positioned, and maybe even obligated, to fight.
That’s the fight against misinformation.
The World Health Organization started alerting the world to the Covid-19 “infodemic” in early February.
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom said at the Munich Security Conference February 15. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
Hear that? The world’s top doc says that misinformation is just as dangerous as something that could kill your grandmother.
Just as crime flourished in London during the Blitz, 21st century fraudsters have been quick to take advantage of the coronavirus panic.
The fake news ranges from the harmlessly satirical — a quarantined Tom Hanks being supplied with a volleyball for company — to the life-threatening — tales of how ingesting silver, taking cocaine or drinking bleach can protect your from the virus.
In India, fake news is persuading people to drink cow piss.
Some of these scammers are just conspiracy theorists raging against the Big Pharma machine. Others are actively trying to make money hawking bogus and dangerous fake vaccines and cures. In the era of pandemic, they’re just as bad as each other.
It’s serious stuff. An infected person who thinks they’ve ingested the magic cure is less likely to take the proper precautions and more likely to transmit the virus to others, who will transmit it to others, who will transmit it to others… and then a bunch of people die.
So far, the WHO and other health authorities have rightly been focused largely on the social media platforms where the majority of this bogosity spreads.
The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google have made changes to their usage policies or content-promotion algorithms in response to the crisis.
Twitter has banned tweets that go against the official guidance on reducing the spread of the virus. Facebook is promoting authoritative news sources and fact-checking misinformation. Google searches for coronavirus return curated, science-based info embedded in the results page, and banned coronavirus-related advertising. YouTube is taking down videos peddling dangerous misinformation.
The social media side of the technology industry certainly seems to be backtracking on its usual “we just a neutral platform” stance.
But it’s not just happening on social media. Many of these posts lead to web sites that are harmful. Some are simple frauds and phishing attacks. Others promote fake cures or urge readers to ignore the official science-based advice.
These web sites use domain names. Thousands have been registered in recent weeks.
NewsGuard has identified dozens of web sites that are promoting coronavirus misinformation. Fact-checking sites such as the AFP and Snopes have identified many more.
So here’s my open question, which I pose to every registry, registrar and reseller reading this:
If you are told about a domain name under your management that is publishing dangerous misinformation, will you take it down?
I’d like to think I know the answer to this question already, but I’m not sure I do.
Registries and registrars are notoriously reluctant to act on complaints about the contents of web sites. Many require a court order before taking action.
During peace time, worthy principles such as free speech, privacy, and legal due process all play a role in this kind of decision-making.
The latest version of the Framework to Address DNS Abuse lists four types of content that its dozens of domain-industry signatories “should” (as opposed to “must”) act on — child sex abuse material, illegal opioid sales, human trafficking, and credible incitements to violence.
The underlying principle leading to this list is “the physical and often irreversible threat to human life”.
I’m reminded of the ethical conundrum faced by EasyDNS and CEO Mark Jeftovic back in 2014, when the company changed its usage policies after a guy died due to fake pharma bought via a domain under its management.
“In one case we have people allegedly pirating Honey Boo Boo reruns and on the other we have people dying. We don’t know where exactly, but the line goes somewhere in between there,” Jeftovic wrote at the time.
I don’t wish to pick on EasyDNS or Jeftovic — changing one’s mind in the face of new evidence is an admirable trait — but I think his quote poses the question quite well.
There’s a line where free speech ends and incitement to virological violence begins.
Figuring out where that line is is something the domain name industry is going to have to get to grips with, fast.

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US senators tell ICANN to reject .org deal

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2020, Domain Registries

Five US senators have called on ICANN to not approve the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital.
The senators — all Democrats — said in a March 18 letter published today that the proposed $1.13 billion deal is “against the public interest”.
The surprisingly detailed nine-page letter (pdf) was signed by Ron Wyden, Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Anna Eshoo, following up from a similar letter sent in January. The new letter also has Ed Markey as a signatory. They write:

We were concerned that the sale would be contrary to ICANN’s commitment to the public benefit, that it might undermine the reliability of .ORG websites, and that Ethos is unlikely to be a responsible steward of the .ORG registry. New information we have obtained in the last two months, including statements made by ISOC, PIR, and Ethos, has validated these concerns. Accordingly, we write to reiterate our view that ICANN should block the proposed change of control of the .ORG registry.

Chief among their concerns is the lack of transparency about who is actually bankrolling the deal. Ethos has confirmed it will be partially funded by loans, but the identities of its actual owners have not been confirmed.
It’s been said that two of the backers are investment firms linked to high-profile Republicans — Senator Mitt Romney and the late Ross Perot.
The senators are also worried that the business plan Ethos has publicly laid out may not be realistic, suggesting that PIR will be forced to rip off customers in order to recoup the cost of the acquisition.
They go on to say that Ethos’ promise to only increase prices by 10% per year, enforceable via a Public Interest Commitment in its ICANN contract, is “weak”, particularly given that the commitment would automatically expire seven years from now.
They’re also not buying the notion that PIR’s proposed Stewardship Council, made up of outside .org stakeholders, would have enough power to guide registry policy, calling the council “toothless”.
ICANN is of course under no obligation to take its lead from a handful of legislators, but it’s yet another voice stacked against a deal that already had very little support.
ICANN has until April 20 to make a decision about the change of control.

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More ICANN events cancelled for May

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has cancelled its annual GDD Industry Summit and DNS Symposium, which had been scheduled to take place in Paris, France, in May.
“The decision to cancel these events was made in light of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 virus outbreak and, for the GDD Summit, included conversations with the Contracted Parties House,” ICANN said in a statement.
The two events had been due to take place back to back from May 3 to 6 and May 7 and 8, respectfully.
The GDD event is for commercial members of the domain name industry — registries and registrars — while the Symposium focuses on the technical side of the industry and had planned to focus on DNS security.
It appears that, unlike ICANN 67, neither is being replaced with a virtual meeting.

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More domain industry response to coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Registrars

It’s beginning to look like home-working has become the norm, rather than the exception, in the domain name industry.
Following on my post Monday, here are the latest companies and organizations to provide updates on their responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • ICANN has told its staff in Brussels, Geneva and Singapore to work from home, while recommending that its guys in Istanbul, LA and Washington DC do the same. Staff in Montevideo and Nairobi, where confirmed cases of the virus are pretty light, will carry on as normal for now. The edict will be in effect until March 31. One imagines there’s a good chance it could be renewed.
  • In the UK, Nominet said yesterday that it has “initiated home-working across all our teams from today” and expects “business as usual”. All in-person events through the end of May have been postponed.
  • In Ireland, registry IEDR said that it closed its offices in Dublin on Friday and may reopen March 30, pending further government guidance. Like other registries, IEDR said it’s already well-equipped for staff to work remotely.
  • Also in Ireland, registrar Blacknight Solutions tells me its team are also now working from home.
  • Canada-based registrar Tucows said: “On Sunday March 8, Tucows’ executive leadership announced that all employees who could conceivably work from home were encouraged to do so in the week that followed. On Monday, it looked like an overabundance of caution but by Thursday morning it seemed prescient.” While there is expected to be no impact to the registrar side of the house, the Ting Internet ISP arm has cancelled and rescheduled all home egineering visits, which obviously could cause customer disruption.
  • French registrar Gandi, operating under some of the world’s most stringent government guidelines, said yesterday its staff are naturally enough now all working from home.
  • Not strictly domain industry, but the World Intellectual Property Organization said yesterday it has limited access to its Geneva headquarters to only “essential” staff.
  • US-based registrar MarkMonitor said Monday it has implemented a remote-working regime for its staff.

Given how dog-bites-man such announcements have rapidly become, I doubt I’ll be following up this series of posts again, unless something truly extraordinary happens. It’s pretty safe to assume that before long almost everyone in the industry will be working from home.

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.org decision delayed another month

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has been given another month to decided whether or not to approve Ethos Capital’s proposed $1.13 billion acquisition of Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society.
PIR said today that it has agreed to give ICANN until April 20 to give it the yay or nay on the controversial deal.
It seems the disruption and distraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic played at least a small role in the decision. PIR said:

To ensure ICANN and the California Attorney General’s office, with which we have been communicating, have the time they need to address any outstanding questions regarding the transaction, especially in light of current events, we have agreed to an ICANN deadline extension to April 20th. We look forward to ICANN’s decision by this date.

Yesterday, opponents of the deal suggested that the acquisition could interfere with the global pandemic response, but PIR has dismissed these claims today as “misleading and alarmist” and “deceiving the public”.
Meanwhile, PIR has updated the proposed contractual Public Interest Commitments that it believes will address some of its critics’ concerns.
Future changes to the PICs will be subject to ICANN’s public comment process, the company said. This is presumably designed to calm fears that the registry will simply dump the PICs next time its contract comes up for renegotiation.
Given the level of confidence in the efficacy of the public comment process — which I would argue is currently close to zero — I doubt this new promise will have its intended effect.
PIR has also taken on criticism that its proposed .ORG Stewardship Council, designed to make sure .org continues to be managed in the public interest, could easily be captured by Ethos yes-men.
Now, instead of appointing the first five members of the council itself, Ethos will instead recruit an “internationally-recognized executive search firm” to find five suitable candidates from stakeholder groups including ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group and At-Large Advisory Committee.
Those nominations will still be subject to final approval by the PIR board, however, so again I think the deal’s critics will still have complaints to cling to.
PIR expects to announce further details of the council selection process next Monday, March 23.

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Delay .org deal because of… coronavirus? Gimme a break

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Policy

Opponents of Public Interest Registry’s proposed acquisition by Ethos Capital are now claiming that ICANN should delay approval of the deal due to coronavirus.
A statement, released yesterday by digital rights group Access Now with the apparent approval of several other like-minded groups, outlines a few reasons why coronavirus means ICANN should reject, or at least delay its consideration of, the deal.
ICANN is currently working towards a March 20 deadline to deliver its verdict.
Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now, said in the statement:

Far from routine, this transfer would further imperil crucial channels of trusted information in a precarious time. From Médecins Sans Frontières to Wikipedia to many of the world’s hospitals, organizations that disseminate accurate health information and connect affected communities with public resources depend on the .ORG domain. Now is not the time to shift the ground beneath their online activities.

Could a $0.97 increase in the cost of wikipedia.org this year see Wikipedia’s hive mind crumble and turn into the digital equivalent of Jenny McCarthy’s brain? Will it prompt MSF volunteers to retreat, screaming, from the front lines? I don’t think so.
The statement goes on to suggest that China would be able to use its substantial financial and political clout to lean on Ethos’ secretive backers to something something something coronavirus. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said:

The Chinese government routinely uses economic pressure to censor critics or inconvenient information, such as about its disastrous early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak. Investors in the private equity firm that wants to buy the .ORG domain inevitably will have economic interests that Beijing could threaten.

While there may well be a nugget of truth in there, I fail to see how it applies to the current pandemic. Is the argument that China will pressure Ethos’ billionaire money men to close down domains belonging to organizations disseminating accurate Covid-19 information? It seems a stretch.
China already has substantial powers to shut down domains within its own borders, and requires registries operating in the country to comply with Draconian censorship rules. I’m not aware of any cases of these existing powers being exercised against domains globally.
A third argument is that ICANN is using coronavirus as a convenient smokescreen to quietly approve the acquisition while everyone else is busy ram-raiding corner stores for toilet paper.
Daniel Eriksson, head of technology at Transparency International, said in the statement:

If this transfer goes ahead during the current crisis as planned, we’ll look back on it as an example of vested interests taking advantage of the extraordinary situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own concerns at the expense of the broader good of society. We need to be vigilant against any such actions, and this is precisely the role of many civil society organizations that have a watchdog function. We need maximum transparency and integrity around the sale of .ORG, and that is simply not possible if the sale is rushed through at a moment when peoples’ attention is elsewhere.

Again, this seems like a stretch. The announcement of the acquisition predates the discovery of Covid-19 by weeks, and it has been subject to intense scrutiny, engagement, comment and unprecedented — albeit imperfect — levels of transparency ever since. This is an acquisition being negotiated to a large extent in the public square.
I’ll be generous and suggest a fourth explanation: this is probably just a poor-taste (but, let’s face it, successful) attempt to grab headlines by linking the #SaveDotOrg campaign, however thinly, to the pandemic currently occupying the world’s collective conscious.
There are plenty of good arguments that could be — and are being — made in favor of further delay and scrutiny of the deal, but I don’t think coronavirus is one of them.

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