Why the Public Directory of Domain Names Is About to Vanish

The WHOIS service has run into the legal landmine of European data regulation, and highlighted the weakness of consensus-based internet governance in the face of the law.

Expert comment Updated 11 April 2019 Published 18 October 2018 2 minute READ
ICANN reveals then-new Generic Top-Level Domain Names in London in 2012. Photo: Getty Images.

ICANN reveals then-new Generic Top-Level Domain Names in London in 2012. Photo: Getty Images.

Until May 2018, anyone could look up the name and contact details for the owner of a domain name. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the US-based private company that coordinates internet domains and IP addresses, required companies that register domain names to collect and publish personal data in the so-called WHOIS service.

While far from a household name, WHOIS was widely relied upon by law enforcement and intellectual property owners to investigate and combat online crime and abuse. At the same time, privacy advocates and regulators have raised concerns about the mandatory publication of every domain name holder’s name and contact details. These groups, each with their legitimate viewpoints, have been talking – sometimes shouting – past each other within ICANN for the past 20 years.

Then in May, the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) arrived. The principles relevant to publication of WHOIS data were unchanged, but the GDPR’s big fines and long-arm jurisdiction captured the attention of the dominant US players within ICANN. Suddenly data protection became everyone’s problem, not just a quirky European wrinkle.

Despite warnings from several groups, the ICANN community as a whole failed to see the GDPR coming until a few months before GDPR took effect. There was a mad scramble to put in place a temporary policy that would be compliant with privacy laws.

On 25 May, the WHOIS ‘went dark’ –- all personal data was removed. Since then, ICANN has sued one of its own registrars in Germany for refusing to collect certain WHOIS data items. ICANN has so far lost at first instance (both on an emergency application and full hearing), then on appeal, and has failed to obtain a reference to the Court of Justice of the EU. The German courts gave the status of ICANN’s consensus policies and contracts short shrift in the face of a European regulation.

In an effort to salvage a publicly accessible WHOIS service, ICANN has set up an emergency working group. The group is tasked to agree what, if any, registration data could still be collected and published on the WHOIS (company data? Non-EU data?), while a separate group is trying to agree rules to allow law enforcement and others access to non-public registration data.

The emergency working group was due to make its interim recommendations by an ICANN meeting in Barcelona in October, but the meeting approaches, there is no sign of consensus.

The long-running WHOIS saga illustrates the adverse impact of GDPR on security and law enforcement.

Any policymaker will recognize that there are some issues on which multiple stakeholders will have incompatible, but legitimate views. In such cases, someone neutral has to step in to frame a solution which can reasonably satisfy all interests, without one side ‘winning’.

This approach is absent by design from the ICANN multi-stakeholder process, where policies are formed through consensus in a bottom-up process, and ICANN the organization assumes a passive role. The current temporary policy was only possible because the ICANN board imposed it, in an unprecedented break from tradition.

So, what will happen next? As is often the case with ICANN, the organization and its multi-stakeholder process is facing an existential crisis. Unable to solve this thorny policy issue for 20 years, ICANN’s latest group is unlikely to find consensus in the following days. ICANN has lost in the German courts and the European Data Protection Board views with skepticism ICANN’s claims that the interest of ‘third parties’ can justify continued collection and publication of WHOIS data.

Most public registers (like Companies House or the Land Registry in the UK) are required by statute, giving legal cover for their processing of personal data. There is no an equivalent in the ICANN world. ICANN has no ability to impose laws – it can only create ‘consensus policies’ which are reflected in contracts.

This may be a pragmatic way to achieve international implementation of policy, bypassing the dreary complexity of jurisdiction and international agreements. But consensus policies are informal instruments which, apparently, do not have the required status to offer protection or exemptions from the enforcement regimes of European regulations.

In recent years, intelligence agencies and law enforcement have consistently complained that the Internet is ‘going dark’. This narrative is part hyperbole and partly accurate, reflecting uptake of end-to-end encrypted applications such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, adverse legal decisions in relation to the collection of bulk data, and stronger encryption available at the transport layer, such as TLS 1.3.

The WHOIS represented a small but strategic jump-off point for investigations, allowing law enforcement to look for patterns, or identify lines of enquiry. While the ICANN community struggles to find a way forward, yet another tool for law enforcement has disappeared.