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New gTLDs or Whois access? What’s more important?

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2022, Domain Policy

Should ICANN focus its resources on getting the next round of new gTLDs underway, or making some baby steps towards a post-GDPR system of Whois access?

That’s a question the community is going to have to address when ICANN 74 rolls around next month, after the ICANN board presented it with a divisive question on two of the industry’s most pressing issues that split the GNSO Council along predictable lines at its monthly meeting last week.

It turns out that ICANN doesn’t have the resources to both design a new “SSAD Light” system for handling Whois requests and also carry on its new gTLDs Operational Design Phase, “SubPro”, at the same time.

If the community wants ICANN staff to start work on SSAD Light, work will be paused on the ODP for at least six weeks, ICANN has said. If they want the system also built, the delay to new gTLDs could be much, much longer.

Intellectual property lawyers are of course keen to at least start undoing some of the damage caused by privacy legislation such as GDRP, while registries and consultants are champing at the bit for another expansion of the gTLD space.

This split was reflected on the Council’s monthly call last week, where registry employees Maxim Alzoba, Kurt Pritz and Jeff Neuman were opposed by IP lawyers Paul McGrady and John McElwaine.

“Six weeks is a sneeze in a hurricane,” McGrady said. “We are right on the cusp of taking first steps to solve a problem that has plagued the Community since GDPR came out. I don’t think a six-week delay on SubPro, which again we’re years into and it looks like will be years to go, is a material change to SubPro… a very minor delay seems well worth it.”

At this point, ICANN is still planning to have the SubPro ODP wrapped up in October, thought it has warned that there could be other unforeseen delays.

Neuman warned that even a six-week pause could provide more than six weeks delay to SubPro. Staff can’t just down tools on one project and pick up again six weeks later without losing momentum, he said.

Pritz seemed to echo this concern. The Registries Stakeholder Group hasn’t finished discussing the issue yet, he said, but would be concerned about anything that caused “inefficiencies” and “switching costs”.

The discussion was pretty brief, and no votes were taken. It seems the conversation will pick up again in The Hague when ICANN meets for its short mid-year public meeting on June 13.

ICANN hasn’t implemented a policy since 2016

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2022, Domain Policy

It’s been over five years since ICANN last implemented a policy, and many of its ongoing projects are in limbo.

Beggars belief, doesn’t it?

The ongoing delays to new gTLD program policy and the push-back from ICANN on Whois policy recently got me thinking: when was the last time ICANN actually did anything in the policy arena apart from contemplate its own navel?

The Org’s raison d’être, or at least one of them, is to help the internet community build consensus policies about domain names and then implement them, but it turns out the last time it actually did that was in December 2016.

And the implementation projects that have come about since then are almost all frozen in states of uncertainty.

ICANN policies covering gTLD domains are usually initiated by the Generic Names Supporting Organizations. Sometimes, the ICANN board of directors asks the GNSO Council for a policy, but generally it’s a bottom-up, grass-roots process.

The GNSO Council kicks it off by starting a Policy Development Process, managed by working group stocked with volunteers from different and often divergent special interest groups.

After a few years of meetings and mailing list conversations, the working group produces a Final Report, which is submitted to the Council, and then the ICANN board, for approval. There may be one or more public comment periods along the way.

After the board gives the nod, the work is handed over to an Implementation Review Team, made up of ICANN staff and working group volunteers, which converts the policy into implementation, such as enforceable contract language.

The last time an IRT actually led to a GNSO policy coming into force, was on December 1, 2016. Two GNSO consensus policies became active that day, their IRTs having concluded earlier that year.

One was the Thick WHOIS Transition Policy, which was to force the .com, .net and .jobs registries to transition to a “thick” Whois model by February 2019.

This policy was never actually enforced, and may never be. The General Data Protection Regulation emerged, raising complex privacy questions, and the transition to thick Whois never happened. Verisign requested and obtain multiple deferrals and the board formally put the policy on hold in November 2019.

The other IRT to conclude that day was the Inter-Registrar Transfer Policy Part D, which tweaked the longstanding Transfer Dispute Resolution Policy and IRTP to streamline domain transfers.

That was the last time ICANN actually did anything in terms of enforceable, community-driven gTLD policy.

You may be thinking “So what? If the domain industry is ticking over nicely, who cares whether ICANN is making new policies or not?”, which would be a fair point.

But the ICANN community hasn’t stopped trying to make policy, its work just never seems to make the transition from recommendation to reality.

According to reports compiled by ICANN staff, there are 12 currently active PDP projects. Three are in the working group stage, five are awaiting board attention, one has just this month been approved by the board, and three are in the IRT phase.

Of the five PDPs awaiting board action, the average time these projects have been underway, counted since the start of the GNSO working group, is over 1,640 days (median: 2,191 days). That’s about four and a half years.

Counting since final policy approval by the GNSO Council, these five projects have been waiting an average of 825 days (median: 494 days) for final board action.

Of the five, two are considered “on hold”, meaning no board action is in sight. Two others are on a “revised schedule”. The one project considered “on schedule” was submitted to the board barely a month ago.

The three active projects that have made it past the board, as far as the IRT phase, have been there for an average of 1,770 days (median: 2,001 days), or almost five years, counted from the date of ICANN board approval.

So why the delays?

Five of the nine GNSO-completed PDPs, including all three at the IRT stage, relate to Whois policy, which was thrown into confusion by the introduction of the European Union’s introduction of the GDPR legislation in May 2018.

Two of them pre-date the introduction of GDPR in May 2018, and have been frozen by ICANN staff as a result of it, while three others came out of the Whois EPDP that was specifically designed to bring ICANN policy into line with GDPR.

All five appear to be intertwined and dependent on the outcome of the ICANN board’s consideration of the EPDP recommendations and the subsequent Operational Design Assessment.

As we’ve been reporting, these recommendations could take until 2028 to implement, by which time they’ll likely be obsolete, if indeed they get approved at all.

Unrelated to Whois, two PDPs relate to the protection of the names and acronyms of international governmental and non-governmental organizations (IGOs/INGOs).

Despite being almost 10 years old, these projects are on-hold because they ran into resistance from the Governmental Advisory Committee and ICANN board. A separate PDP has been created to try to untangle the problem that hopes to provide its final report to the board in June.

Finally, there’s the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures PDP, which is in its Operational Design Phase and is expected to come before the board early next year, some 2,500 days (almost seven years) after the PDP was initiated.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from all this, other than that ICANN has turned into a convoluted mess of bureaucracy and I thoroughly understand why some community volunteers believe their patience is being tested.

“GDPR is not my fault!” — ICANN fears reputational damage from Whois reform

Kevin Murphy, January 28, 2022, Domain Policy

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

That seems to an uncomfortable message emerging from ICANN’s ongoing discussions about SSAD, the proposed Standardized System for Access and Disclosure, which promises to bring some costly and potentially useless reform to the global Whois system.

ICANN’s board of directors and the GNSO Council met via Zoom last night to share their initial reactions to the ICANN staff’s SSAD Operational Design Assessment, which had been published just 48 hours earlier.

I think it’s fair to say that while there’s still some community enthusiasm for getting SSAD done in one form or another, there’s much more skepticism, accompanied by a fear that the whole sorry mess is going to make ICANN and its vaunted multistakeholder model look bad/worse.

Some say that implementing SSAD, which could take six more years and cost tens of millions of dollars, would harm ICANN’s reputation if, as seems quite possible, hardly anyone ends up using it. Others say the risk comes from pissing away years of building community consensus on a set of policy recommendations that ultimately don’t get implemented.

GNSO councillor Thomas Rickert said during yesterday’s conference call:

One risk at this stage that I think we need to discuss is the risk to the credibility of the functionality of the multi-stakeholder model. Because if we give up on the SSAD too soon, if we don’t come up with a way forward on how to operationalize it, then we will be seen as an organization that takes a few years to come up with policy recommendations that never get operationalized and that will certainly play into the hands of those who applaud the European Commission for coming up with ideas in NIS2, because obviously they see that the legislative process at the European and then at the national state level is still faster than ICANN coming up with policies.

NIS2 is a formative EU Directive that is likely to shake up the privacy-related legal landscape yet again, almost certainly before ICANN’s contractors even type the first line of SSAD code.

While agreeing with Rickert’s concerns, director Becky Burr put forward the opposing view:

The flip side of that is that we build it, we don’t have the volume to support it at a reasonable cost basis and it does not change the outcome of a request for access to the Whois data… We build it, with all its complexity and glory, no one uses it, no one’s happy with it and that puts pressure on the multi-stakeholder model. I’m not saying where I come out on this, but I feel very torn about both of those problems.

The ODA estimates the cost of building SSAD at up to $27 million, with the system not going live until 2027 or 2028. Ongoing annual operating costs, funded by fees collected from the people requesting private Whois data, could range from $14 million to $107 million, depending on how many people use it and how frequently.

These calculations are based on an estimated user base of 25,000 and three million, with annual queries of 100,000 and 12 million. The less use the system gets, the higher the per-query cost.

But some think the low end of these assumptions may still be too high, and that ultimately usage would be low enough to make the query fees so high that users will abandon the system.

Councillor Kurt Pritz said:

I think there’s a material risk that the costs are going to be substantially greater than what’s forecast and the payback and uptake is going to be substantially lower… I think there’s reputational risk to ICANN. We could build this very expensive tool and have little or no uptake, or we could build a tool that becomes obsolete before it becomes operational.

The low-end estimates of 25,000 users asking for 100,000 records may be “overly optimistic”, Pritz said, given that only 1,500 people are currently asking registrars for unredacted Whois records. Similarly, there are only 25,000 requests per year right now, some way off the 100,000 low-end ODA assumption, he said.

If SSAD doesn’t even hit its low-end usage targets, the fee for a single Whois query could be even larger than the $40 high-end ODA prediction, creating a vicious cycle in which usage drops further, further increasing fees.

SSAD doesn’t guarantee people requesting Whois data actually get it, and bypassing SSAD entirely and requesting private data directly from a registrar would still be an option.

There seems to be a consensus now that GDPR always requires registries and registrars to ultimately make the decision as to whether to release private data, and there’s nothing ICANN can do about it, whether with SSAD or anything else.

CEO Göran Marby jokingly said he’s thinking about getting a T-shirt printed that says “GDPR was not my fault”.

“The consequences of GDPR on the whole system is not something that ICANN can fix, that’s something for the legislative, European Commission and other ones to fix,” he said. “We can’t fix the law.”

One idea to rescue SSAD, which has been floated before and was raised again last night, is to cut away the accreditation component of the system, which Marby reckons accounts for about two thirds of the costs, and basically turn SSAD into a simplified, centralized “ticketing system” (ironically, that’s the term already used derisively to describe it) for handling data requests.

But the opposing view — that the accreditation component is actually the most important part of bringing Whois into GDPR compliance — was also put forward.

Last night’s Zoom call barely moved the conversation forward, perhaps not surprisingly given the limited amount of time both sides had to digest the ODA, but it seems there may be future conversations along the same lines.

ICANN’s board, which was in “listening mode” and therefore pretty quiet last night, is due to consider the SSAD recommendations, in light of the ODA, at some point in February.

I would be absolutely flabberghasted if they were approved in full. I think it’s far more likely that the policy will be thrown back to the GNSO for additional work to make it more palatable.

No SSAD before 2028? ICANN publishes its brutal review of Whois policy

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2022, Domain Policy

Emergency measures introduced by ICANN to reform Whois in light of new privacy laws could wind up taking a full decade, or even longer, to bear dead-on-the-vine fruit.

That’s arguably the humiliating key takeaway from ICANN’s review of community-created policy recommendations to create a Standardized System for Access and Disclosure (SSAD), published this evening.

The Org has released its Operational Design Assessment (pdf) of SSAD, the first-ever ODA, almost nine months after the Operational Design Phase was launched last April.

It’s a 122-page document, about half of which is appendices, that goes into some detail about how SSAD and its myriad components would be built and by whom, how long it would take and how much it would cost.

It’s going to take a while for the community (and me) to digest, and while it generally veers away from editorializing it does gift opponents of SSAD (which may include ICANN itself) with plenty of ammunition, in the form of enumerated risk factors and generally impenetrable descriptions of complex systems, to strangle the project in the crib.

Today I’m just going to look at the timing.

Regular DI readers will find little to surprise them among the headline cost and timeline predictions — they’ve been heavily teased by ICANN in webinars for over a month — but the ODA goes into a much more detailed breakdown.

SSAD, ICANN predicts, could cost as much as $27 million to build and over $100 million a year to operate, depending on adoption, the ODA says. We knew this already.

But the ODA contains a more detailed breakdown of the timeline to launch, and it reveals that SSAD, at the most-optimistic projections, would be unlikely to see the light of day until 2028.

That’s a decade after the European Union introduced the GDPR privacy law in May 2018.

Simply stated, the GDPR told registries and registrars that the days of unfettered access to Whois records was over — the records contain personal information that should be treated with respect. Abusers could be fined big.

ICANN had been taken off-guard by the law. GDPR wasn’t really designed for Whois and ICANN had not been consulted during its drafting. The Org started to plan for its impact on Whois barely a year before it became effective.

It used the unprecedented top-down emergency measure of the Temporary Specification to force contracted parties to start to redact Whois data, and the GNSO Council approved an equally unprecedented Expedited Policy Development Process, so the community could create some bottom-up policy.

The EPDP was essentially tasked with creating a way for the people who found Old Whois made their jobs easier, such as intellectual property lawyers and the police, to request access to the now-private personal data.

It came up with SSAD, which would be a system where approved, accredited users could funnel their data requests through a centralized gateway and have some measure of assurance that they would at least be looked at in a standardized way.

But, considering the fact that they would not be guaranteed to have their requests approved, the system would be wildly complex, potentially very expensive, and easily circumvented, the ODP found.

It’s so complex that ICANN reckons it will take between 31.5 and 42 months for an outsourced vendor to build, and that’s after the Org has spent two years on its Implementation Review Team activities.

SSAD timeline

That’s up to almost six years from the moment ICANN’s board of directors approves the GNSO’s SSAD recommendations. That could come as early as next month (but as I reported earlier today, that seems increasingly unlikely).

The ODA points out that this timetable could be extended due to factors such as new legislation being introduced around the world that would affect the underlying privacy assumptions with which SSAD was conceived.

And this is an “expedited” process, remember?

Ten years ago, under different management and a different set of bylaws, ICANN published some research into the average duration of a Policy Development Process.

The average PDP took 620 days back then, from the GNSO Council kicking off the process to the ICANN board voting to approve or reject the policy. I compared it to an elephant pregnancy, the longest gestation period of all the mammals, to emphasize how slow ICANN had become.

Slow-forward to today, when the “expedited” PDP leading to SSAD has so far lasted 1,059 days, if we’re counting from when Phase 2 began in March 2019. It’s taken 1,287 days if we’re being less generous and counting from the original EPDP kicking off.

Nelly could have squeezed out two ankle-nibblers in that time. Two little elephants, one of which would most assuredly be white.

ICANN board not happy with $100 million Whois reform proposals

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has given its clearest indication yet that it’s likely to shoot down community proposals for a new system for handling requests for private Whois data.

Referring to the proposed System for Standardized Access and Disclosure, ICANN chair Maarten Botterman said “the Board has indicated it may not be able to support the SSAD recommendations as a whole”.

In a letter (pdf) to the GNSO Council last night, Botterman wrote:

the complexity and resources required to implement all or some of the recommendations may outweigh the benefits of an SSAD, and thus may not be in the best interests of ICANN nor the ICANN community.

The SSAD would be a centralized way for accredited users such as trademark lawyers, security researchers and law enforcement officers to request access to Whois data that is currently redacted due to privacy laws such as GDRP.

The system was the key recommendation of a GNSO Expedited Policy Development Process working group, but an ICANN staff analysis last year, the Operational Design Phase, concluded that it could be incredibly expensive to build and operate while not providing the functionality the trademark lawyers et al require of it.

ICANN was unable to predict with any accuracy how many people would likely use SSAD. It will this week present its final ODP findings, estimating running costs of between $14 million and $107 million per year and a user base of 25,000 to three million.

At the same time, ICANN has pointed out that its own policies cannot overrule GDPR. Registries and registrars still would bear the legal responsibility to decide whether to supply private data to requestors, and requestors could go to them directly to bypass the cost of SSAD altogether. Botterman wrote:

This significant investment in time and resources would not fundamentally change what many in the community see as the underlying problem with the current process for requesting non-public gTLD registration data: There is no guarantee that SSAD users would receive the registration data they request via this system.

ICANN management and board seem to be teasing the GNSO towards revising and scaling back its recommendations to make SSAD simpler and less costly, perhaps by eliminating some of its more expensive elements.

This moves ICANN into the perennially tricky territory of opening itself up to allegations of top-down policy-making.

Botterman wrote:

Previously, the Board highlighted its perspective on the importance of a single, unified model to ensure a common framework for requesting non-public gTLD registration data. However, in light of what we’ve learned to date from the ODP, the Board has indicated it may not be able to support the SSAD recommendations as a whole as envisioned by the EPDP. The Board is eager to discuss next steps with the Council, as well as possible alternatives to design a system that meets the benefits envisioned by the EPDP

The board wants to know whether the GNSO Council shares its concerns. The two parties will meet via teleconference on Thursday to discuss the matter. The ODP’s final report may be published before then.

ICANN trying to strangle SSAD in the crib?

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN is trying to kill off or severely cripple Whois reform because it thinks the project stands to be too expensive, too time-consuming, and not fit for purpose.

That’s what many long-time community members are inferring from recent discussions with ICANN management about the Standardized System for Access and Disclosure (SSAD), a proposed method of normalizing how people request access to private, redacted Whois data.

The community has been left trying to read the tea leaves following a December 20 briefing in which ICANN staff admitted they have failed to even approximately estimate how well-used SSAD, which has been criticized by potential users as pointless, might be.

During the briefing, staff gave a broad range of implementation times and cost estimates, saying SSAD could take up to four years and $27 million to build and over $100 million a year to operate, depending on adoption.

The SSAD idea was thrown together in, by ICANN standards, super-fast time with a super-tenuous degree of eventual consensus by a cross-community Expedited Policy Development Process working group.

One of the EPDP’s three former chairs, Kurt Pritz, a former senior ICANN staffer who’s been heavily involved in community work since his departure from the Org in 2012, provided his read of the December webinar on a GNSO Council discussion this week.

“I’ve sat through a number of cost justification or cost benefit analyses in my life and got a lot of reports, and I’ve never sat through one that more clearly said ‘Don’t do this’,” Pritz said.

GNSO liaison to the Governmental Advisory Committee Jeff Neuman concurred moments later: “It seemed that we could imply from the presentation that that staff was saying ‘Don’t do it’… we should require them to put that in writing.”

“It was pretty clear from the meeting that ICANN Org does not want to build the SSAD. Many people in the community think its estimates are absurdly inflated in order to justify that conclusion,” Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project recently wrote of the same webinar.

These assessments seem fair, to the extent that ICANN appears seriously averse to implementing SSAD as the recommendations are currently written.

ICANN repeated the December 20 cost-benefit analysis in a meeting with the GAC this week, during which CEO Göran Marby described the limitations of SSAD, and how it cannot override privacy laws such as the GDPR:

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature of GDPR to limit access to data…

The SSAD is a recommended system to streamline the process of requesting data access. It cannot itself increase access to the data, as this is actually determined by the law. And so, in practice, the SSAD is expected to have little to no impact on the contracted parties’ ultimate disclosure or nondisclosure response to requests… it’s a ticketing system with added functionality.

While Marby stressed he was not criticizing the EPDP working group, that’s still a pretty damning assessment of its output.

Marby went on to reiterate that even if SSAD came into existence, people wanting private Whois data could still request it directly from registries and registrars, entirely bypassing SSAD and its potentially expensive (estimated at up to $45) per-query fees.

It seems pretty clear that ICANN staff is not enthused about SSAD in its current form and there’s a strong possibility the board of directors will concur.

So what does the policy-making community do?

There seems to be an emerging general acceptance among members of the GNSO Council that the SSAD proposals are going to have to be modified in some way in order for them to be approved by the board.

The question is whether these modifications are made preemptively, or whether the GNSO waits for more concrete feedback from Org and board before breaking out the blue pen.

Today, all the GNSO has seen is a few PowerPoint pages outlining the top-line findings of ICANN’s Operational Design Assessment, which is not due to be published in full until the board sees it next month.

Some Council members believe they should at least wait until the full report is out, and for the board to put something on the record detailing its reservations about SSAD, before any changes are made.

The next update on SSAD is an open community session, likely to cover much of the same ground as the GAC and GNSO meetings, scheduled for 1500 UTC on January 18. Details here.

The GNSO Council is then scheduled to meet January 20 for its regular monthly meeting, during which next steps will be discussed. It will also meet with the ICANN board later in the month to discuss its concerns.

Whois reform to take four years, cost up to $107 million A YEAR, and may still be pointless

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s proposed post-GDPR Whois system could cost over $100 million a year to run and take up to four years to build, but the Org still has no idea whether anyone will use it.

That appears to be the emerging conclusion of ICANN’s very first Operational Design Phase, which sought to translate community recommendations for a Standardized System for Access and Disclosure (SSAD) into a practical implementation plan.

SSAD is supposed to make it easier for people like trademark owners and law enforcement to request personal information from Whois records that is currently redacted due to privacy laws such as GDPR.

The ODP, which was originally meant to conclude in September but will now formally wrap up in February, has decided so far that SSAD will take “three to four years” to design and build, costing between $20 million and $27 million.

It’s calculated the annual running costs at between $14 million and $107 million, an eye-wateringly imprecise estimate arrived at because ICANN has pretty much no idea how many people will want to use SSAD, how much they’d be prepared to pay, and how many Whois requests they will likely make.

ICANN had previously guesstimated startup costs of $9 million and ongoing annual costs around the same level.

The new cost estimates are based on the number of users being anywhere between 25,000 and three million, with the number of annual queries coming in at between 100,000 and 12 million.

And ICANN admits that the actual demand “may be lower” than even the low-end estimate.

“We haven’t been able to figure out how big the demand is,” ICANN CEO Göran Marby told the GNSO Council during a conference call last month.

“Actual demand is unknowable until well after the launch of the SSAD,” an ICANN presentation (pdf) states. The Org contacted 11 research firms to try to get a better handle on likely demand, but most turned down the work for this reason.

On pricing, the ODP decided that it would cost a few hundred bucks for requestors to get accredited into the system, and then anywhere between $0.45 and $40 for every Whois request they make.

Again, the range is so laughably broad because the likely level of demand is unknown. A smaller number of requests would lead to a higher price and vice versa.

Even if there’s an initial flurry of SSAD activity, that could decline over time, the ODP concluded. In part that’s because registries and registrars would be under no obligation to turn over records, even if requestors are paying $40 a pop for their queries.

It’s also because SSAD would not be mandatory — requestors could still approach contracted parties directly for the info they want, for low or no cost, if they think the price of SSAD is too high or accreditation requirements too onerous.

“There’ll always be a free version of this for everybody,” Marby said on the conference call.

In short, it’s a hell of a lot of money for not much functionality. There’s a better than even chance it could be a huge waste of time and money.

An added complication is that the laws that SSAD is supposed to address, mainly GDPR, are likely to change while it’s being implemented. The European Union’s NIS2 Directive stands to move the goalposts on Whois privacy substantially, and not uniformly, in the not-too-distant future, for example.

This is profoundly embarrassing for ICANN as an organization. Created in the 1990s to operate at “internet speed”, it’s now so bloated, so twisted up it its own knickers, that it’s getting lapped by the lumbering EU legislative process.

The ODP is set to submit its final report to ICANN’s board of directors in February. The board could theoretically decide that it’s not in the interest of ICANN or the public to go ahead with it.

Marby, for his part, seems to be thinking that there could be some benefit from a centralized hub for submitting Whois requests, but that it should be simpler than the current “too complex” proposal, and funded by ICANN.

My take is that ICANN is reluctant to move ahead with SSAD as it’s currently proposed, but because top-down policy-making is frowned upon its hands are tied to make the changes it would like to see.

ICANN adds another six months to Whois reform roadmap

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN says that its preparatory work for possible Whois reforms will take another six months.

The Operational Design Phase for the System for Standardized Access and Disclosure will now conclude “by the end of February 2022”, ICANN said this week.

That’s after the Org missed its original September deadline after six months of work.

ICANN program manager Diana Middleton said at ICANN 72 last week that ODP had been delayed by various factors including surveys taking longer than expected and throwing up more questions than they answered.

A survey of Governmental Advisory Committee members due September 17 was extended until the end of October.

But she added that ICANN intends to throw its first draft of the output — an Operational Design Assessment — at its technical writers by the end of the month, with a document going before the board of directors in early February.

SSAD is the proposed system that would funnel requests for private Whois data through ICANN, with a new veneer of red tape for those wishing to access such data.

The ODP is ICANN’s brand-new process for deciding how it could be implemented, how much it would cost, and indeed whether it’s worthwhile implementing it at all.

It’s also being used to prepare for the next round of new gTLDs, with a 13-month initial deadline.

The longer the current ODP runs, the greater the cost to the eventual SSAD user.

Whois rule changes that nobody likes get approved anyway

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2021, Domain Services

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization Council has approved a handful of changes to Whois policy, despite the fact that pretty much nobody was fully on-board with the proposals and how they were made.

The new recommendations call for a new field in Whois records to flag up whether the registrant is a private individual, whose privacy is protected by law, or a legal entity like a company, which have no privacy rights.

But the field will be optional, with no obligation for registries or registrars to use it in their Whois services, which has angered intellectual property interests, governments and others.

The working group that came up with the recommendations also declined to find that Whois records should come with an anonymized registrant email address as standard. This absence of change was also adopted by the Council, causing more disappointment.

In short, nothing much is happening to Whois records for the foreseeable future as a result of these policy changes.

But the process to arrive at this conclusion has highlighted not just the deep divisions in the ICANN community but also, some argue, deficiencies in the ICANN process itself.

The Expedited Policy Development Process working group that has since 2018 been looking at the interaction between Whois and privacy protection law, primarily the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, had been asked two final questions earlier this year, to wrap up its long-running work.

First, should registrars and registries be forced to distinguish between legal and natural persons when deciding what data to publish in Whois?

Second, should there be a registrant-based or registration-based anonymized email published in Whois to help people contact domain owners and/or correlate ownership across records?

The answer on both counts was that it’s up to the registry or registrar to decide.

On legal versus natural, the EPDP decided that ICANN should work with the technical community to create a new field in the Whois standard (RDAP), but that there should be no obligation for the industry to use it.

On anonymized email addresses, the working group recommendations were even hand-wavier — they merely refer the industry to some legal advice on how to implement such a system in a GDPR-compliant way.

While this phase of the EPDP’s work was super-fast by ICANN standards (taking about nine months) and piss-weak with its output, it nevertheless attracted a whole lot of dissent.

While its tasks appeared straightforward to outsiders, it nevertheless appears to have inherited the simmering tensions and entrenched positions of earlier phases and turned out to be one of the most divisive and fractious working groups in the modern ICANN period.

Almost every group involved in the work submitted a minority statement expressing either their displeasure with the outcome, or with the process used to arrive at it, or both. Even some of the largely positive statements reek of sarcasm and resentment.

EPDP chair Keith Drazek went to the extent of saying that the minority statements should be read as part and parcel of the group’s Final Report, saying “some groups felt that the work did not go as far as needed, or did not include sufficient detail, while other groups felt that certain recommendations were not appropriate or necessary”.

This Final Report constitutes a compromise that is the maximum that could be achieved by the group at this time under our currently allocated time and scope, and it should not be read as delivering results that were fully satisfactory to everyone.

The appears to be an understatement.

The Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency were both the angriest, as you might expect. They wanted to be able to get more data on legal persons, and to be able to reverse-engineer domain portfolios using anonymous registrant-baed email addresses, and they won’t be able to do either.

The Governmental Advisory Committee and Security and Stability Advisory Committee both expressed positions in line with the IPC/BC, dismayed that no enforceable contract language will emerge from this process.

Councilor Marie Pattullo of the BC said during the GNSO Council vote last Wednesday that the work “exceeds what is necessary to protect registrant data” and that the EPDP failed to “preserve the WHOIS database to the greatest extent possible”.

The “optional differentiation between legal and natural persons is inadequate”, she said, resulting in “a significant number of records being needlessly redacted or otherwise being made unavailable”. The approved policies contain “no real policy and places no enforceable obligations on contracted parties”, she said.

IPC councilor John McElwaine called the EPDP “unfinished work” because the working group failed to reach a consensus on the legal/natural question. The IPC minority statement had said:

Requiring ICANN to coordinate the technical community in the creation of a data element which contracted parties are free to ignore altogether falls far short of “resolving” the legal vs. natural issue. And failing to require differentiation of personal and non-personal data fails to meet the overarching goal of the EPDP to “preserve the WHOIS database to the greatest extent possible” while complying with privacy law.

But McElwaine conceded that “a minority of IPC members did favor these outputs as being minor, incremental changes that are better than nothing”.

The BC and IPC both voted against the proposals, but that was not enough to kill them. They would have needed support from at least one councilor on the the other side of the GNSO’s Non-Contracted Parties House, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, and that hand was not raised.

While the NCSG voted “aye”, and seemed generally fine with the outcome, it wasn’t happy with the process, and had some stern words for its opponents. It said in its minority statement:

The process for this EPDP has been unnecessarily long and painful, however, and does not reflect an appreciation for ICANN’s responsibility to comply with data protection law but rather the difficulty in getting many stakeholders to embrace the concept of respect for registrants’ rights…

With respect to the precise issues addressed in this report, we have stressed throughout this EPDP, and in a previous PDP on privacy proxy services, that the distinction between legal and natural is not a useful distinction to make, when deciding about the need to protect data in the RDS. It was, as we have reiterated many times, the wrong question to ask, because many workers employed by a legal person or company have privacy rights with respect to the disclosure of their personal information and contact data. The legal person does not have privacy rights, but people do.

While welcoming the result, the Registrars Stakeholder Group had similar concerns about the process, accusing its opponents of trying to impose additional legal risks on contracted parties. Its minority statement says:

it is disappointing that achieving this result was the product of significant struggle. Throughout the work on this Phase, the WG revisited issues repeatedly without adding anything substantially new to the discussion, and discussed topics which were out of scope. Perhaps most importantly, the WG was on many occasions uninterested in or unconcerned with the legal and financial risks that some proposed obligations would create for contracted parties in varying jurisdictions or of differing business models, or the risks to registrants themselves.

The Registries Stakeholder Group drilled down even more on the “out of scope” issue, saying the recommendation to create a new legal vs natural field in Whois went beyond what the working group had been tasked with.

They disagreed with, and indeed challenged, Drazek’s decision that the discussion was in-scope, but reluctantly went ahead and voted on the proposals in Council in order to finally draw a line under the whole issue.

The question of whether the legal vs natural question has been in fact been resolved seems to be an ongoing point of conflict, with the RySG, RrSG and NCSG saying it’s finally time to put the matter to bed and the IPC and BC insisting that consensus has not yet been reached.

The RySG wrote that it is “well past time to consider the issue closed” and that the EPDP had produced a “valuable and acceptable outcome”, adding:

The RySG is concerned that some have suggested this issue is not resolved. This question has been discussed in three separate phases of the EPDP and the result each time has been that Contracted Parties may differentiate but are not required to do so. This clearly demonstrates that this matter has been addressed appropriately and consistently. A perception that this work is somehow unresolved could be detrimental to the ICANN community and seen as undermining the effectiveness of the multistakeholder model.

Conversely, the BC said the report “represents an unfortunate failure of the multistakeholder process” adding that “we believe the record should state that consensus opinion did not and still does not exist”.

The IPC noted “a troubling trend in multistakeholder policy development”, saying in a clear swipe at the contracted parties that “little success is possible when some stakeholders are only willing to act exclusively in their own interests with little regard for compromise in the interest of the greater good.”

So, depending on who you believe, either the multistakeholder process is captured and controlled by intransigent contracted parties, or it’s unduly influenced by those who want to go ultra vires to interfere with the business of selling domains in order to violate registrant privacy.

And in either case the multistakeholder model is at risk — either “agree to disagree” counts as a consensus position, or it’s an invitation for an infinite series of future policy debates.

Business as usual at the GNSO, in other words.

Almost no security researchers asking for Whois records – Tucows

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2021, Domain Registrars

Security researchers are not asking for private Whois records in anywhere near the numbers you might have been led to believe, according to data released this week by Tucows.

The registrar revealed that it received just one request from the security community between September 2020 and the end of August 2021. That’s not even 1% of the total.

Over the same period, the “commercial litigators” category, presumably including intellectual property interests going after suspected cybersquatters, were behind 87% of requests.

About 9% of requests came from law enforcement agencies, Tucows said.

The company said that it disclosed private registrant data in 74% of cases. It denied the requests in 9% of cases. Other requests were incomplete or abandoned.

Tucows has been offering a Tiered Access service for its Whois records since the General Data Protection Regulation came into effect in May 2018. It has received 4,478 requests since then.