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EPIC Supports Formulation 1

  • To: whois-comments@xxxxxxxxx
  • Subject: EPIC Supports Formulation 1
  • From: Marc Rotenberg <rotenberg@xxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 13 Feb 2006 16:35:42 -0500


We respectfully request that the views of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center (EPIC) be considered in the ICANN evaluation of the
"Preliminary task force report on the purpose of Whois and of the Whois
contacts  18 January, 2006." We understand that the formal deadline for
comments expired 8 February 2006. We received no formal notification of
this proceeding, and only recently learned from our colleagues in the
NCUC that just one comment was provided in support of the privacy of
Internet users. Therefore, we ask that you consider our views so that
your decision about this important matter well be informed and that,
whatever decision you reach, will be based on sufficient information.

We write to express our firm support for "Formulation 1," as this has
been put forward in the Task Force Report. This is almost precisely the
description that EPIC and Privacy International have presented in the
leading report on privacy developments around the globe, Privacy and
Human Rights ("PHR 2004"). In the following text, we excerpt the
conclusions from that report on WHOIS and underscore the key findings.
Further, we draw attention to the growing concerns about identity theft
and the likelihood that a WHOIS policy that makes personal information
widely available will put the privacy and security of Internet users at
substantially greater risk.

[The report may be cited as <Marc Rotenberg and Cedric Laurant, "Privacy
and Human Rights: An International Survey of Privacy Laws and
Developments" (EPIC and Privacy International 2004)>, available online at
available for sale at http://www.epic.org/bookstore/phr2004/.
the excerpts below may be found in the print edition at pages 133-37.]

PHR2004 recognized the important role that the Internet plays in
promoting many beneficial services.

        In the first quarter of 2004, more than 4.7 million new domain
        names were registered. This brings the total number of
        registrations to an all time high of 63 million domain names.[521]
        Registrants include large and small businesses, individuals, media
        organizations, non-profit groups, public interest organizations,
        political, and religious organizations, and support groups. These
        domain name registrants share their services, ideas, views,
        activities, and more by way of websites, e-mail, newsgroups, and
        other Internet media. Registrants are required to provide
        information in the registration process, which is then made
        publicly available.

PHR2004 further discusses the central role of the ICANN in establishing
the registration procedures, as well as many policy issues, for Internet
        The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a
        private-sector corporation that coordinates policy for the
        Internet,[522] has established contractual arrangements with the
        registries that manage the top-level domains and the registrars
        that sell the domain names to the registrants. ICANN requires
        public disclosure on the Internet of domain name registrants'
        contact information (such as mailing address, phone number and
        e-mail address), administrative contact information, technical
        contact information, domain name and servers, and other
        information.[523] This information is referred to as "WHOIS" data.
        Its public availability has generated concerns over privacy
PHR2004 expresses concern that the ICANN has not acknowledged the
right of individuals, such as human rights advocates, to maintain
anonymous web addresses.

        Under ICANN's WHOIS policy, Internet users are unable to register
        for a domain anonymously. The WHOIS database broadly exposes
        domain name registrants' personal information to a global
        audience, including criminals and spammers.[524] Anyone with
        Internet access has access to WHOIS data, including stalkers,
        corrupt governments cracking down on dissidents, spammers,
        aggressive intellectual property lawyers, and police agents
        without legal authority.[525] Even those speaking out for human
        rights cannot conceal their identity. While it is true that some
        registrants use the Internet to conduct fraud, most domain name
        registrants do not, and many have legitimate reasons to conceal
        their identities and to register domain names anonymously. For
        example, political, artistic and religious groups around the world
        rely on the Internet to provide information and express views
        while avoiding persecution. Concealing actual identity may be
        critical for political, artistic, and religious expression.[526]
PHR2004 acknowledges that WHOIS data can be used for both good and
bad purposes, but most importantly concludes that "the WHOIS database
was no originally intended to allow access for such a variety of
purpose." The original purpose of WHOIS, as PHR2004 makes clear was
"to allow network administrators to find and fix technical problems
with minimum hassle in order to maintain the stability of the Internet."
        WHOIS data lends itself to both good faith and bad faith uses, and
        investigating fraud is only one of many uses of WHOIS data.[527]
        There now exist various automated data mining procedures that
        provide bad-faith users with access to large amounts of personal
        data at a time, rather than just individual queries. Web-based
        WHOIS services now have to complicate their access procedures, for
        example, requiring users to enter number codes before they can
        retrieve information. The WHOIS database was not originally
        intended to allow access for such a variety of purposes. The
        original purpose of WHOIS was instead to allow network
        administrators to find and fix technical problems with minimal
        hassle in order to maintain the stability of the Internet.
PHR2004 further notes that requiring accurate data without safeguards
for privacy needlessly puts individuals at risk.
        ICANN's WHOIS policy requires that registrants provide accurate
        WHOIS information, or otherwise forgo a domain name.[528] If a
        domain registration is assumed to have inaccurate information,
        registrants are contacted and given a very limited amount of time
        to address the problem. Data entered at registration may change in
        the real world and registrant may forget to update it. They may
        lose their domain if they are unable to respond quickly to any
        attempts to contact them. Privacy experts have noted that a policy
        requiring accurate WHOIS data and then publicly disclosing the
        data creates serious implications for free speech.[529]
        The ICANN WHOIS policies conflict with national privacy laws,
        including the EU Data Protection Directive, which require the
        establishment of a legal framework to ensure that when personal
        information is collected, it is used only for its intended
        purpose. At a recent ICANN meeting, George Papapavlou, a
        representative from the European Commission stated that if the
        original purpose of the WHOIS database is purely technical, the
        rights of access to and collection of that information pertain
        solely to that original purpose.[530] Speaking at the "Freedom
        2.0" conference held by EPIC in May 2004, Vinton G. Cerf, the
        President of ICANN, confirmed directly that the original purpose
        of WHOIS was indeed purely technical.[531] As personal information
        in the directory is used for other purposes and ICANN's policy
        keeps the information public and anonymously accessible, the
        database could be found illegal according to many data protection
        laws including the European Data Protection Directive.[532]
As the PHR2004 report explains, the collection of information for
a technical purpose would not provide justification for other uses.
Such a conclusion would violate the laws of any country with a modern
privacy regime.

        Under European law, technical users would be the only ones with a
        legitimate claim to the information. While intellectual property
        lawyers and law enforcement officials claim the WHOIS database
        must retain all its current data in its public form as a resource
        for investigations, the fact that the WHOIS database was
        originally created for technical purposes makes it clear that such
        claims to the database would be inconsistent with its original
        In 2003, ICANN's Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO)
        began a policy development process identifying three issues,
        access, data and accuracy, and creating task forces to study and
        make recommendations on each. EPIC is serving on one of the WHOIS
        task forces. The outcome of the WHOIS Policy Development Process
        will have a significant impact on privacy, civil liberties, and
        freedom of expression for Internet users.[533] Civil liberties
        groups and the Non-Commercial Users Constituency[534] of ICANN
        have urged ICANN to limit the use and scope of the WHOIS database
        to its original purpose, which is the resolution of technical
        network issues, and to establish strong privacy protections based
        on internationally accepted privacy standards. This limitation
        would entail restricting access to the data, minimizing data
        required to only that needed for technical matters, and not
        penalizing registrants for protecting their personal information
        by entering inaccurate personal data elements.
        The task forces have drafted reports[535] on WHOIS policy in these
        three areas, yet it is unclear whether the recommendations will
        improve privacy protections. Some of the recommendations entail
        more privacy risks than safeguards. At the same time, some of the
        better recommendations, including some restrictions on access and
        data required, may not be accepted by the GNSO Council and the
        ICANN Board should they decide to rule on the policy development.
        After three years, this policy development process, including the
        establishment of previous task forces, has not made any strides
        in the protection of privacy and the current problematic policy
PHR2004 also notes that the prospect of developing policies for access
to WHOIS data could particularly contradict the practices that are
likely to be enforced for ccTLDs in jurisdictions where there are
clear privacy laws.
        While ICANN has considerable authority over the development of
        WHOIS policies for the generic top-level domains (gTLDs), such as
        .com, .org, and .net, it is unclear whether ICANN will be able to
        exercise similar control over the country-code top-level domains
        (ccTLDs), such as .uk and .de, which may choose to follow national
        policies. Significantly, country code Top Level Domains are moving
        to provide more privacy protection in accordance with national
        law. For example, regarding Australia's TLD, .au, the WHOIS policy
        of the .au Domain Administration Ltd (AUDA) states in section 4.2,
        "In order to comply with Australian privacy legislation,
        registrant telephone and facsimile numbers will not be disclosed.
        In the case of id.au domain names (for individual registrants,
        rather than corporate registrants), the registrant contact name
        and address details also will not be disclosed." In addition, auDA
        does not allow bulk access to WHOIS data, which ICANN's gTLDs
        do.[536] It is unclear what, if any, indirect effect the GNSO
        WHOIS policy development will have on the policies of ccTLDs.
        The ICANN WHOIS policy process has continued for several years,
        yet has failed to resolve the privacy risks faced by Internet
        users that result directly from ICANN's own data practices.

We concluded in 2004 that the ICANN WHOIS policy has "failed to
resolve the privacy risks faced by Internet users that *result directly
from ICANN's own data practices.*" (emphasis added).

This last point is critical: It is ICANN that is placing the privacy
and security of Internet users at risk by collecting and making
publicly available personal information that need not be collected
and certainly should not be disclosed.

We have learned in the United States over the last few years about
the extraordinary risks to personal privacy that result from the
improper disclosure of personal information.

Identity theft has emerged as the #1 crime in the US. According the US
Federal Trade Commission, almost 250,000 ID theft complaints were
received by the FTC in 2004. The FTC reports that approximately 10
million Americans each year fall victim to identity theft. The FTC
estimates that the annual cost is $53 b to the US economy. Moreover, the
FTC found that prosecutions are rare as police investigations are
costly, time-consuming and easily stymied.

Has the ICANN given any serious consideration to the likelihood that it
may exacerbate dramatically the risk of identity theft for Internet
users if it makes personal information widely available to anyone with
access to the WHOIS database without any consequences for how that
information is used??
The wisdom of privacy laws has become increasingly self-evident
over the last several years. Those countries that have limited the
disclosure of personal information have simply not experienced the
same level of criminal conduct as have those countries that make
this information widely available.

ICANN has every reason to adopt Formulation 1 from the Preliminary
Task For Report of January 2006:

(1) It is consistent with the original purpose of WHOIS data
(2) It is consistent with the privacy laws of many countries
(3) It is consistent with the best practices of the ccTLDs
     that have addressed the WHOIS issue
(4) It will help safeguard the privacy and security of Internet

We urge the ICANN to adopt this sensible approach to a very serious

(Further information regarding WHOIS Privacy may be found at the
EPIC page, http://www.epic.org/privacy/whois/)

Thank you for your consideration of our views.


Marc Rotenberg Executive Director EPIC

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