Uncle Sam slams plans to give govts final say over domain privacy

ICANN throws itself under bus to hit GDPR deadline

A plan by ICANN to let governments collectively decide who is allowed to bypass new European privacy rules over domain names has been blasted by its most powerful member, the United States.

At a meeting of DNS oversight organization ICANN, the US government representative told colleagues from across the globe his country didn't like the idea of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) to decide which groups should be granted access to the full "Whois" data.

It should instead be a self-regulatory effort with groups that have a legitimate need for such information working together to create their own accreditation system, the USG rep argued.

That message was reiterated in a speech by Assistant Commerce Secretary David Redl at ICANN's meeting in Puerto Rico, when he talked about the proposed "interim" model put forward by the organization to address the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into force in May.

"The United States would encourage revisions to the model that would permit access to the most amount of registration data as possible," Redl said. "We think there is more that can be done to achieve this."

Redl also criticized the very short amount of time that ICANN had provided to come up with an accreditation process and worried that the time crunch would mean that law enforcement and IP lawyers would lose access to the Whois database because of the tardy response.

"The United States will not accept a situation in which Whois information is not available or is so difficult to gain access to that it becomes useless for the legitimate purposes that are critical to the ongoing stability and security of the Internet," he pointedly noted.


Indeed, ICANN's last-minute patchwork of plans in an effort to hit the GDPR deadline has already created more noise than agreement.

In what appears to have been an effort to be pragmatic, the organization's staff proposed that the world's governments, through its GAC body, come up with a system for deciding who should be allowed to view the full details of who owns a particular domain – including their name, phone number and email address.

That approach has been heavily criticized however as going directly against ICANN's multi-stakeholder ethos – where everyone impacted by a decision, from the technical community to business to civil society to governments, gets an equal say in the solution.

The fact that it is the US government that has had to rebuke ICANN for its suggested government-centric approach is particularly poignant: the US gave up its formal oversight of ICANN over a year ago amid concerns that it had too much influence on decision-making.

This week's events have led to a number of notable internet figures privately question whether ICANN was ready to assume its full responsibilities.

On the flipside, however, the internet community has tried and failed for over 20 years to devise a replacement for the outdated Whois service. The only reason a plan is even being debated this month is because of the impending EU deadline.

Hamster wheel

ICANN as an organization has become adept at constantly pushing back deadlines: it was first informed that the Whois broke European law nearly a decade ago. Unfortunately the same institutional effort that is put into putting off decisions has not been applied to building decision-making systems that embrace compromise.

In this case, however, things may be turned upside down in that the group which most often prevents new policies from being introduced – the registries and registrars that fund ICANN and are responsible for the registration and transfer of domain names – are those that have the most to lose.

If ICANN does not introduce a system for protecting the private information of domain name registrants by the end of May, it will be the companies publishing those details that face massive fines.

For once, the frequently marginalized civil society representatives within ICANN are happy to watch the industry-led impasse. Let it fail, some representatives are saying behind the scenes, because it is the businesses that will be hit with lawsuits and fines. Then, the theory goes, they will be willing to come back and negotiate. ®

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