Powerful Coalition Letter Highlights Danger of ICANN’s New Domain Registration Proposal

EFF has joined 46 organizations and 105 individuals to oppose a new domain registration proposal before the Internet Corporation for Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN). From the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to the National Council of Women’s Organizations at chayn, an organization that combats domestic violence in Pakistan, the wide range of organizations and individuals signing on to this letter reflects just how misguided this proposition is. We hope ICANN will reject the flawed proposal, which comes from a select ICANN working group, especially in light of this unified opposition.

ICANN is the not-for-profit corporation that oversees the global domain name system and sets policies that govern domain name registrars. Each domain name has an entry in the public WHO IS database that anyone can consult and which includes at least a name, a postal address and a telephone number.

Registrants of domain names have long been able to use the domain privacy services, sometimes called proxy recording. When using a privacy service, the service’s own contact information appears in the WHOIS database instead of the domain owner’s. The working group’s new proposal would require privacy services to hand over the domain name holder’s private contact information or even list that information in the public database, based on a simple accusation of violation of the copyright or trademark – no court order required.

Worse still, a few WG members would like ICANN to ban privacy services entirely for websites used for “commercial purposes”, which is broadly defined to include “the management of online financial transactions commercial purposes”.

As the coalition letter points out, this proposal threatens a wide range of people who have good reason to want to keep their information private:

  • female independent game developers who sell products through their own online stores
  • freelance journalists and authors who market their work online
  • small business owners who run stores or businesses from home
  • activists who receive donations to fund their work, especially those living under totalitarian regimes
  • people who share personal stories online to fund medical procedures

Even without the privacy ban for “commercial” websites, the proposal creates serious privacy issues for website owners. Accusations of copyright and trademark infringement are easy to make and easy to abuse, and the working group’s proposal imposes no consequences for false or abusive accusations.

The danger of publishing a home address is serious:

“Doxing” is the malicious practice of obtaining someone’s personal information (eg, home address, phone number, etc.) and making that information more easily and widely available. Doxing enables a wide range of participatory harassment and intimidation, which includes everything from unwanted pizza deliveries to relentless barrages of rape and death threats.

And like Katherine Cross, a sociologist specializing in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds pointed out“A WHOIS lookup is by no means the only way to dox someone, but we should. Stronger to acquire such information, without greasing the skates… Aspiring doxers do not need the help of Internet repositories.

She is absolutely right. Doxing and other forms of harassment involving the use of a person’s home address can be deeply damaging to the freedom of expression and right to privacy of those targeted, and these types of harassment are frequently used to intimidate and silence the most marginalized groups. Privacy is not a philosophical issue. For some it is a access issue to the Internet, especially for those who need it most. These are often women, minorities and people with unpopular political views.

That is why we are delighted that such a broad coalition has signed this letter. Digital rights groups like fight for the future and EFF have signed alongside a plethora of domestic violence advocacy and women’s rights organizations around the world. Celebrities like Chris Kluwe, Ashley Judd and Amanda Palm Tree added their voices to internet luminaries like Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundationand professor at Harvard Jonathan Zittrain. Signatories also include the Tor project and Wickerrecognizing that real security and anonymity would be impossible for many if this proposal became political.

Which Is it that support this proposal? Certainly not everyone at ICANN, not even most working group members. The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which is part of the task force, is fighting to maintain strong privacy protections in the policy. And most members of the working group oppose the idea of ​​treating “commercial” areas differently. The task force report notes:

The Working Group agrees that a registrant’s status as a commercial organization, non-commercial organization or individual should not be the determining factor in determining whether [privacy and proxy] services are available to the declarant. Basically, P/P services should remain available to registrants, regardless of their status as commercial or non-commercial organizations or individuals.

We agree. No special treatment of “commercial” domains is guaranteed. The Working Group should maintain its focus on rejecting this distinction.

In fact, as we have already pointed out, this proposal seems to be almost exclusively supported by the entertainment industry and the big commercial brands, who say that they must be able to discover the identity of website owners on request, without court order, in order to enforce their trademarks and copyrights.

It’s not necessary. Copyright and trademark infringement may be investigated using existing legal procedures, such as subpoenas, under the supervision of a court. Although court oversight is not a perfect system in any country, it generally provides notice to those whose privacy is threatened, a means for them to challenge a loss of privacy, and avenues of redress. The task force’s proposal would give entertainment companies and commercial brands a cheaper and potentially faster way to obtain the identities of website owners, but these entities already have many tools that are less prone to abuse.

You can read the full letter and see the signatories here. ICANN has not yet made a decision on this proposal, so it is important that they hear from many different people and organizations that may be affected. That’s why we’re proud to join this coalition letter, and that’s why you should submit your own comments to ICANN today, the last day of the public comment period. You can make your voice heard by signing the petition on https://www.savedomainprivacy.org/. With your help, the proposal to create barriers to privacy, or even to ban it completely for certain websites, will not advance any further.

Ultimately, if ICANN adopts this proposal, it comes down to a very simple question: what does ICANN care about most? The safety and security of vulnerable internet users or a bit of opportunism for companies owning trademarks and copyrights?

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