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ICANN’s private Whois data request service goes live

Kevin Murphy, November 28, 2023, Domain Registrars

ICANN has this evening gone live with its service that enables anyone to request private Whois data on any gTLD domain.

The Registration Data Request Service lets people request contact information on registrants that would otherwise be redacted in the public Whois due to laws such as the GDPR.

The press release announcing the launch seems to have come out an hour or two before the service actually became accessible, but it’s definitely live now and I’ve tried it out.

The system is defined largely by what it isn’t. It isn’t an automated way to get access to private data. It isn’t guaranteed to result in private data being released. It isn’t an easy workaround to post-GDPR privacy restrictions.

It is a way to request an unredacted Whois record knowing only the domain and not having to faff around figuring out who the registrar is and what their mechanisms and policies are for requesting the data.

After scaling back the extremely complex and expensive original community recommendations for a post-GDPR Whois service, ICANN based the RDRS on its now decade-old Centralized Zone Data Service, which acts as an intermediary between registries and people like myself who enjoy sniffing around in zone files.

The RDRS merely connects Whois data requestors — the default settings in the interface suggest that ICANN thinks they’ll mostly be people with court orders — with the registrars in charge of the domains they are interested in.

Anyone who has used CZDS will recognize the interface, but the requesting process is longer, more complex, and requires accepting more disclaimers and Ts&Cs. That said, it’s not particularly confusing.

At first glance, it looks fine. Slick, even. I’ve used it to submit a test request with GoDaddy for my own Whois data, specifying that whoever deals with the request is free to ignore it. Let’s see what happens.

Whois disclosure system coming this year?

Kevin Murphy, March 2, 2023, Domain Tech

ICANN has approved the creation of a Whois Disclosure System, almost six years after Europe’s GDPR rules tore up the rule book on Whois access.

The system is likely to face a name change before going live, due to the fact that it does not guarantee, nor process, the disclosure of private Whois data.

The board of directors passed a resolution February 27, a month later than expected, “to develop and launch the WHOIS Disclosure System (System) as requested by the GNSO Council within 11 months from the date of this resolution.”

That’s two months longer than earlier anticipated, but we’re still looking potentially at a live system that people can sign up for and use a year from now.

The system is expected to be based on the Centralized Zone Data Service that many of us have been using to request and download gTLD zone files for the last decade. While not perfect, CZDS gets the job done and has improved over the years.

The technology will be adapted to create what essentially amounts to a ticketing system, allowing the likes of IP lawyers to request unredacted Whois records. The requests would then be forwarded to the relevant registrar.

It’s an incredibly trimmed-down version of what Whois users had been asking for. Participation is voluntary on both sides of the transaction, and registrars are under no new obligations to approve requests.

If nobody uses the system, it could be turned off. ICANN Org has only been directed to run it for “for up to two years”. ICANN will collect and publish usage data to figure out whether it’s worth the quite substantial number of hours and dollars that have already gone into its development.

The actual cost of development and operation had been pegged at $3.3 million, but the board’s resolution states that most of the cost will be existing staff and excess costs will come from the Supplemental Fund for Implementation of Community Recommendations (SFICR).

ICANN expects to approve Whois Disclosure System next month

Kevin Murphy, December 20, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN could be offering a centralized system for requesting private domain registration data as early as a year from now, a mere five and a half years after GDPR ruined the global Whois system for many.

The Org recently alluded to its “board’s anticipated January 2023 vote to move forward in implementing the new system to streamline the intake and routing of requests for access to nonpublic gTLD registration data” in a blog post.

It has previously stated that it will take nine months to develop and roll out the system, along with a three-month “ramp-up period”, but that preparatory work may have already started.

The system will be based on CZDS, the service that currently allows people to request zone file data from registries, and cost $3.3 million to develop and run for its anticipated two-year trial period.

Don’t expect it to be called the Whois Disclosure System though. Community feedback has been pretty clear that “disclosure” is an inappropriate word because the system merely manages requests and does not actually disclose anything.

It’s also going to be voluntary for both requesters and registrars/registries for now.

The system was previously known as SSAD Lite, a cut-down version of the community-recommended System for Standardized Access and Disclosure, which ICANN estimated would have cost infinity dollars and take a century to implement.

Registrars CAN charge for Whois, ICANN grudgingly admits

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2022, Domain Registrars

ICANN is powerless to prevent registrars from charging for access to non-public Whois data, the Org has reluctantly admitted.

In a recent advisory, ICANN said it is “concerned” that registrars including Tucows have been charging fees to process requests for data that would otherwise be redacted in the free public Whois.

But it said there’s nothing in the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, specifically the Temporary Specification governing Whois in the post-GDPR world, that bans such services:

While the RAA explicitly requires access to public registration data directory services to be provided free of charge, the Temporary Specification does not specifically address the issue of whether or not a registrar may charge a fee for considering requests for access to redacted registration data.

So basic Whois results, with all the juicy info redacted, has to be free, but registrars can bill organizations who ask for the veil to be lifted. ICANN wrote:

ICANN org is concerned that registrars’ imposition of fees for consideration of requests for access to nonpublic gTLD registration data may pose an access barrier. Access to registration data serves the public interest and contributes to the security and stability of the Internet

The advisory calls out Tucows’ Tiered Access Compliance and Operations system, TACO, as the primary example of a registrar charging for data, but notes that others are too.

Not long after the advisory was published, Tucows posted an article in which it explained that the fees are necessary to cover the cost of the “thousands” of automated requests it has received in the last four years.

Charging fees for compliance with other forms of legal process is not uncommon in the industry, and the vast majority of requests for registration data (approximately 90%) continue to come from commercial litigation interests and relate to suspected intellectual property infringement.

Facebook, now Meta, was at first, and may still well be, a frequent bulk filer.

Tucows said that it “frequently” waives its fees upon request for “single-use requestors and private parties”.

Identity Digital publishes treasure trove of abuse data

Kevin Murphy, October 3, 2022, Domain Registries

Identity Digital, the old Donuts, has started publishing quarterly reports containing a wealth of data on reported abuse and the actions it takes in response.

The data for the second quarter, released (pdf) at the weekend, shows that the registry receives thousands of reports and suspends hundreds of domains for DNS abuse, but the number of domains it takes down for copyright infringement is quite small.

ID said that it received 3,007 reports covering 3,816 unique domains in the quarter, almost 93% of which related to phishing. The company said the complaints amounted to 0.024% of its total registered domains.

Most cases were resolved by third parties such as the registrar, hosting provider, or registrant, but ID said it suspended (put on “protective hold”) 746 domains during the period. In only 11% of cases was no action taken.

The company’s hitherto opaque “Trusted Notifier” program, which allows the Motion Picture Association and Recording Industry Association of America to request takedowns of prolific piracy sites resulted in six domain suspensions, all as a result of MPA requests.

The Internet Watch Foundation, which has similar privileges, resulted in 26 domains being reported for child sexual abuse material. Three of these were suspended, and the remainder were “remediated” by the associated registrar, according to ID.

The report also breaks down how many requests for private Whois data the company received, and how it processed them. Again, the numbers are quite low. Of requests for data on 44 domains, 18 were tossed for incompleteness, 23 were refused, and only three resulted in data being handed over.

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the requests related to intellectual property. The biggest category was people trying to buy the domain in question.

This is a pretty cool level of transparency from ID and it’ll be interesting to see if its rivals follow suit.

Whois Disclosure System to cost up to $3.3 million, run for one year

Kevin Murphy, September 13, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN has published its game plan for rolling out a Whois Disclosure System ahead of next week’s ICANN 75 public meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

The Org reckons the system will take nine months to build and will cost up to $3.3 million to develop and run for two years, although it might wind up getting shut down after just one year.

The Whois Disclosure System, previously known as SSAD Light, is a mechanism whereby anyone with an ICANN account — probably mainly IP lawyers in practice — can request unredacted private Whois data from registrars.

The system is to be built using retooled software from the current Centralized Zone Data Service, which acts as a hub for researchers who want to request zone files from gTLD registry operators.

ICANN’s design paper (pdf), which contains many mock-ups of the likely user interface, describes the new system like this:

Just as in CZDS, a requestor navigates to the WHOIS Disclosure System web page, logs into their ICANN Account, and is presented with a user experience much like the current CZDS. In this experience, requestors can see pending and past requests as well as metadata (timestamps, status, etc.) associated with those requests. For a requestor’s pending requests, they can see all the information related to that request.

Requests filed with the system will be routed to the relevant registrar via the Naming Services Portal, whereupon the registrar can choose how to deal with it. The system doesn’t change the fact that registrars have this discretion.

But the system will be voluntary for not only the requesters — who can still contact the registrar directly if they wish — but also the registrars. One can imagine smaller and frequently abused registrars won’t want the hassle.

The cost of this system will be $2.7 million in staffing costs, with $90,000 in external licensing costs and another $500,000 in contingency costs. Because ICANN has not budgeted for this, it will come from the Supplemental Fund for Implementation of Community Recommendations, which I believe currently has about $20 million in it.

This is far and away cheaper than the full-fat SSAD originally proposed by the GNSO, which ICANN in January estimated could cost up to $27 million to build over five years.

While cheaper, there are still substantial questions remaining about whether it will be popularly used, and whether it will be useful in getting private Whois data into the hands of the people who say they need it.

ICANN is saying that the Whois Disclosure System will run for one year “at which point the data sets collected will be analyzed and presented for further discussion between the GNSO Council and Board”.

The design paper will be discussed at multiple ICANN 75 sessions, starting this weekend.

Belgium slashes its ICANN funding in “mission creep” protest

Kevin Murphy, August 12, 2022, Domain Policy

DNS Belgium has cut its contribution to ICANN’s budget by two thirds, in protest at ICANN’s “mission creep” and its handling of GDPR.

The Belgian ccTLD registry informed ICANN CFO Xavier Calvez that it will only pay $25,000 this fiscal year, compared to the $75,000 it usually pays.

Registry general manager Philip Du Bois wrote (pdf) that “during recent years there has been a shift in focus which is not in the benefit of ccTLD’s”.

ICANN has become a large corporate structure with a tendency to suffer from “mission creep”… At the same time ICANN seems to fail in dealing in an appropriate way with important issues such as GDPR/privacy. It goes beyond our comprehension that ICANN and its officers don’t feel any reluctancy to “advise” European institutions and national governmental bodies to embrace “standards developed by the multi-stakeholder structures on international level” while at the same time it is obvious that ICANN itself has not yet mastered the implementation of important European legislation.

Based in the heart of the EU, DNS Belgium was a strong proponent of Whois privacy many years before the GDPR came into effect in 2018.

Calvez, in his reply (pdf), acknowledges that ccTLD contributions are voluntary, but seems to insinuate (call me a cynic) that the criticisms are hollow and that the registry might simply be trying to reduce its costs during an economic downturn:

We do appreciate any amount of contribution, and also that the ability for any ccTLD to contribute varies over time, including based on economic circumstances. We do understand that the reduction of DNS Belgium’s contribution from US$75,000 to US$25,000 represents a significant and meaningful reduction of costs for DNS Belgium.

DNS Belgium seems to be doing okay, based on its latest annual financial report. It’s not a huge company, but registrations and revenue have been growing at a slow and steady rate for the last several years.

All ccTLD contributions to ICANN are voluntary, but there are suggested donations based on how many domains a registry has under management, ranging from the $225,000 paid by the likes of the UK registry to the $500 paid by the likes of Pitcairn.

DNS Belgium, which manages about 1.7 million names, falls into the third-highest band, with a $75,000 suggested contribution.

ICANN is budgeting for funding of $152 million in its current FY23.

SSAD: Whois privacy-busting white elephant to be shelved

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN is likely to put SSAD, the proposed system for handling requests for private Whois data, on the back-burner in favor of a simplified, and far less expensive, temporary fix.

But now ICANN is warning that even the temporary fix might be problematic, potentially delaying unrelated work on the next new gTLD round for months.

The GNSO Council has asked the ICANN board of directors that “consideration of the SSAD recommendations be paused” in favor of what it calls “SSAD Light”.

SSAD, for Standardized System for Access and Disclosure, is a sprawling, multifaceted proposal that would create a system whereby trademark owners, for example, can request Whois data from registrars.

After months of studying the proposal, ICANN decided it could cost as much as $27 million to build and might not go live before 2028.

There’s apparently substantial resistance within ICANN Org to committing to such a project, so the GNSO put together a small team of experts to figure out whether something simpler might be a better idea.

They came up with SSAD Light, which would be basically a stripped-down ticketing system for data requests designed in part to gauge potential uptake and get a better idea of what a full SSAD might cost.

But there’s some strong resistance to SSAD Light, notably from former ICANN chair Steve Crocker, who recently called it “nonsense” with a design that does not match its goals.

Nevertheless, the GNSO Council submitted the bare-bones proposal to the ICANN board in an April 27 letter (pdf).

Since then, it’s emerged that simply fleshing out the design for SSAD Light would add at least six weeks to the separate Operational Design Phase of the next new gTLD application round (known as SubPro). I assume this is due to ICANN staff workload issues as the two projects are not massively interdependent.

This delay could extend to “months” to SubPro if ICANN is then asked to build SSAD Light, according to Jeff Neuman, who’s acting as liaison between the GNSO and ICANN on the SubPro ODP.

In a nutshell, the GNSO Council is being asked what it wants more — Whois reform, or more new gTLDs. It’s a recipe for fireworks, and no mistake.

It will meet May 19 to discuss the matter.

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.

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.