Privacy at ICANN: WHOIS winning?
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has struggled over the publication of the name, address, phone number, and email address of domain name registrants since its inception in 1998. That registry is called WHOIS.
WHOIS might have worked well during the 1980s when only a few researchers had domain names, but now it exposes millions of individuals to harassment and spam. So far, neither the efforts of civil society who volunteer at this multi-stakeholder organisation (notably the Noncommercial Users Constituency), nor the repeated interventions of the Data Commissioners of the world have had a lot of impact. However, there is a huge struggle going on now over compliance with the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Registrars who collect registrant data and provide it according to their contracts with ICANN have obtained legal advice that indicates they are vulnerable to significant fines.
ICANN continues to try to maintain a registrant directory that permits the continued access of many third parties, notably law enforcement agencies, trade mark and copyright holders, and private sector cybercrime investigators and reputational “blacklisters”. There has been a flurry of activity to address long-neglected privacy rights, and CEO Goran Marby has been asking for advice from the Article 29 Working Party. They answered on 11 April 2018 in a letter which was quite clear about ICANN’s failure to comply.
According to the Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG), key issues that remain are:
- There is no multistakeholder process at the moment, and in recognition of the work which was going on in the WHOIS policy development process has been temporarily suspended. The CEO and the Board will make a decision, claiming it to be based on advice from the Article 29 Working Party and on “community input”. That interim policy is good for a year, during which time the community can propose changes, through a normal policy development process. Once the year is over (and the process takes a couple of months in itself to vote through a policy) the interim policy will become the final policy unless there is an agreed replacement. Given the recent history of the Registration Directory Services Policy Development Process (RDS PDP), it is highly unlikely that consensus to change the interim solution in less than a year would be achieved. This appears to be abandonment of the multi-stakeholder process, and requires close scrutiny. A multi-stakeholder process needs to remain in place to reach some kind of consensus on the biggest policy debate that ICANN has confronted in its history.
- The purpose of the collection, use and disclosure of registrant data is being construed to include feeding the third party actors who have always had free access to the data (in the NCSG view, often illegally).
- The issue of public safety and consumer protection as a reason to permit widespread access to data is unsupported by recent accurate data.
- The risks to individuals and small organisations have never been measured.
- The proposed tiered access model depends for its efficacy on a serious accreditation process. Because there is no time to develop one before 25 May, of the day the General Data Protection Regulation becomes law, an interim self-accreditation process is proposed. There may not be an appetite to work on proper standards that engage the data protection authorities, and the interim solution will not simply expose individuals to marketing, domain expropriation, spam, and risk from political adversaries. Self-accreditation risks setting up an anti-competitive regime where registrant data is held by dominant players.
- ICANN is still not clear as to whether it regards itself as a data controller, although a long-serving member of the ICANN community challenged them publicly on this matter at ICANN61 meeting in March 2018.It has also thus far refused to appoint a privacy officer for any registrant data related issues. What is clear to the NCSG is that ICANN is the only contracting party who has access to all escrowed data of registrants, and that they set the terms for that escrow arrangement. They also set the terms for the contracts with registries and registrars, and enforce their compliance through the Global Domains Division (compliance branch). It is worth noting that one of the recommendations of the business community proposal is that ICANN must retain access to all registrant data at all times, whatever the solution selected.
- For those not following the GDPR closely, the issue of who is the controller may be extremely important in terms of liability.
- NCSG is working on a standards development project led by a University of Toronto team, to develop proper accreditation standards for third parties to whom personal data is released by data controllers and processors. There must be strong management practices in place to ensure that the entities asking for the data are indeed who they say they are, and that their purported reasons to request the data are legitimate, limited, and proportionate. There should also be standards to ensure proper safeguarding and eventual destruction of the data, and access rights for individuals, as well as transparency except in exceptional circumstances. The Article 29 Working Party released a paper in February detailing their expectations and their own involvement in the accreditation of various processors under the GDPR; this standards proposal is working in the same vein, to explore what best management practices look like.
Working Paper International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications
Working Paper on Privacy and Data Protection Issues with Regard to Registrant data and the WHOIS Directory at ICANN (27-28.11.2017)
Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG) Positions on Whois Compliance with GDPR (16.04.2018)
ICANN: Data Protection/Privacy – Latest Announcements, Updates & Blogs
ICANN Receives Data Protection/Privacy Guidance from Article 29 Working Party (12.04.2018)
(Contribution by Stephanie Perrin, University of Toronto, NCSG Councilor)