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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.

After 10 months, ICANN board “promptly” publishes its own minutes

Kevin Murphy, May 17, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has approved a huge batch of its own meeting minutes, covering the period from July 15 last year to March 10 this year, raising questions about its commitment to timely transparency.

The board approved the minutes of its last 14 full-board meetings in one huge batch of 14 separate resolutions at its May 12 meeting, and they’ve all now been published on the ICANN web site, along with redacted briefing papers for said meetings.

The period includes decisions on planning for the next new gTLD round and Whois reform, the legal fight with Afilias over the contested .web gTLD, and apparently divisive discussions about the timing of a post-pandemic return to face-to-face meetings.

No explanation has been given for why it’s taken so long for these documents to appear, the timing of which appears to go against ICANN’s bylaws, which state that minutes are supposed to be approved and published “promptly”:

All minutes of meetings of the Board, the Advisory Committees and Supporting Organizations (and any councils thereof) shall be approved promptly by the originating body and provided to the ICANN Secretary (“Secretary”) for posting on the Website.

ICANN almost always published its board’s resolutions within a few days of approval, and a preliminary report — which also includes the number of votes yay or nay, without naming the directors — within a couple of weeks.

The minutes, which are published only after the board rubber-stamps them, typically include a further vote breakdown and a little bit of color on how the discussion went down.

In the newly published batch, some of the documents are somewhat illuminating, while others barely nudge the dimmer switch.

For example, the preliminary report for the July 15, 2021 meeting, published 11 days later, notes that three of the 16 voting directors rebelled on a resolution about making the October annual general meeting in Seattle a virtual-only event, but the just-published minutes name those directors and flesh out some of their reasons for dissenting.

It turns out the directors had a “robust discussion”, with some arguing that it would be safe to go ahead with a “hybrid” meeting comprising both face-to-face and remote participation options.

The dissenting directors were Ron da Silva, Avri Doria, and Ihab Osman, it turns out. Osman and da Silva had voted a similar way a year earlier.

Directors could not reasonably have been expected to know about the impact the Delta variant of Covid-19 would have on world health in the latter half of the year. It had been identified and named by scientists but had yet to spread to the extent it was making headlines.

But they were aware of concerns from the Asia-Pacific members of the community, worried that a hybrid meeting in Seattle would disadvantage those unable to attend due to pandemic travel restrictions. This appears to have been raised during the discussion:

Some Board members expressed desire to see more work done to have ICANN72 as a hybrid meeting. They noted that Seattle has protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of ICANN staff and the community, and ICANN should use this opportunity to begin to return to its normal meeting standards as much as possible. Others noted that the concerns about travel inequities or restrictions for certain parts of the world should not prevent moving forward with an in-person component for ICANN72 because such inequities and restrictions exist with or without the pandemic.

The return to in-person meetings was discussed again in November, when the board decided to junk plans, secured by the dissenting directors in July, for a hybrid meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ron da Silva had left the board by this point, but the new minutes show that Doria and Osman were joined by León Sánchez in advocating for a hybrid meeting with an in-person component.

While the July minutes contains a few paragraphs summarizing discussions, the November minutes simply notes that the board “reviewed the proposed resolution and rationale to confirm that it reflects the Board’s discussion and edits”.

And that’s pretty typical for most of the documents published this week — time and again the substantive discussion appears to have either happened off-camera, during non-minuted sessions of the board at unspecified times, or was simply not minuted.

Interested in the talks leading to the approval of the new gTLDs Operational Design Phase? The minutes shed no light.

Interested in how the board reacted to ICANN losing its Independent Review Process case with Afilias about .web? The minutes merely note that the resolution was approved “after discussion”.

There’s also a glaring hole in one set of minutes, raising questions about whether these documents are a reliable record of what happened at all.

We know for a fact that on September 12 the ICANN board approved a resolution naming the new chair and vice chair of its influential Nominating Committee, only to reconvene two weeks later to scrap that decision and name a different chair instead.

But if you read the September 12 minutes, you’ll find no record of NomCom even being discussed, let alone a resolution being passed appointing a chair.

The newly published batch of documents cover several resolutions related to executive pay, but none of the minutes contain the same level of transparency as ICANN displayed in February 2021, when it revealed that three directors voted against CEO Göran Marby’s pay rise.

In terms of transparency, that now appears to fully confirmed as an isolated incident.

ICANN highlights “not getting things done” risk

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors addressed a number of existential threats at its latest workshop, including the perception that it’s simply “not getting things done.”

Chair Maarten Botterman disclosed the discussions, which took place at the end of April, in a blog post Friday.

He described how the board broke up into four “brainstorming” groups, which returned with strikingly similar views on the risks ICANN faces.

There’s a worry that the lack of in-person meetings due to the pandemic is harming ICANN’s ability to work and that various unspecified “geopolitical initiatives” may get in the way of the mission. He added:

Moreover, we recognized the risk of ICANN being seen as “not getting things done.” On the opportunity side is the broad awareness within ICANN that we need to continue to deliver on our mission in the face of new challenges, as demonstrated by the prioritization efforts of the Board, Org, and Community, and our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Org and the community have been faced with what I would call organizational inertia in recent months and years.

I wrote a few months ago about how ICANN hadn’t implemented a policy since December 2016 — more than five years previously.

Major issues facing the industry seem to be either stuck in endless feedback loops of community arguments or interminable Org preparatory work.

The SSAD, pitched as a solution to the problem of Whois access, appears doomed to be scrapped entirely or approved in a much-reduced form that many believe will not address the problem of identifying registrants in a post-GDPR world.

And even if the stripped-back SSAD Light gets approved, there’s a good chance this will add many months to the runway of the next round of new gTLDs, which itself is at an impasse because the Governmental Advisory Committee and the the GNSO cannot agree on whether to allow closed generics.

As it stands, 10 years after the last application round new gTLD policy is in the Operational Design Phase within Org, and not expected to come before the board until late this year. Much of what has been disclosed about the ODP to date looks a lot like wheel-spinning.

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.

“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 teases prices for private Whois lookups

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN has started to put some flesh on the bones of the forthcoming (?) SSAD system for accessing private Whois records, including teasing some baseline pricing.

During a session at ICANN 72 last week, staffers said responses to recent requests for information put the cost of having an identity verified as an SSAD user at about $10 to $20.

Those are vendor wholesale prices, however, covering the cost of looking at a government-issue ID and making sure it’s legit, and do not include the extra administration and cost-recovery charges that ICANN plans to place on top.

The verification fee would have to be renewed every two years under ICANN’s proposal, though the verification vendors are apparently pushing for annual renewals.

The fee also would not include the likely per-query charge that users will have to pay to request the true personal data behind a redacted Whois record.

It’s not currently anticipated that any money would flow to registrars, CEO Göran Marby said.

SSAD, the Standardized System for Access and Disclosure, is currently undergoing Operational Design Phase work in ICANN, with monthly webinar updates for the community.

ICANN expects to reveal more pricing details on the December webinar, staffers said.