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Comments on the WHOIS Task Force's Final Report on Accuracy and Bulk Access

20 February 2003

Interim At-Large Advisory Committee
Comments on the WHOIS Task Force's Final Report on Accuracy and
Bulk Access


The Interim At-Large Advisory Committee thanks the WHOIS Task Force
for its exhaustive and diligent work on challenging policy issues, and
appreciates the opportunity to submit its comments on the Task Force's
Final Report on Accuracy and Bulk Access. We have considered the Task
Force's recommendations with a focus on their effect on individual
Internet users, but also within a broader policy context, and have
tried to identify priorities for further work where we believe that it
needs to be undertaken.

The committee is aware that the Task Force is currently in the process
of producing issues reports on several topics; these issues reports
will probably cover many of the broader points we make in this
document. We hope that the present statement can serve as a useful
contribution to that work. We are also looking forward to further
contributing to the issues reports themselves and to the general
discussion on WHOIS issues.

WHOIS Accuracy

The impact of any measures for the improvement of WHOIS Accuracy must
be considered with two very different classes of registrants in mind.

On the one hand, there are those registrants who welcome (or maybe
just accept) the publication of their data through the WHOIS database,
and have a desire that accurate data are published that way. There is
no need for any formal "enforcement" of accurate WHOIS data with
respect to this class of registrants -- instead, any measures to
improve WHOIS data accuracy for this class of registrants are about
making registrars' processes more registrant-friendly, and easier to
use. An annual opportunity to review and easily correct WHOIS data
without sanctions in the case of registrant's non-response -- as
recommended by the Task Force as policy 1.A -- is one such step.

The second class of registrants is much more complex to handle: Those
who do not accept publication of personal data in registrars' and
registries' WHOIS systems, and provide "inaccurate" contact
information to registrars. There are various reasons registrants may
have for this behaviour, both legitimate and illegitimate; even worse,
the concepts of legitimate and illegitimate reasons vary across
cultures and across constituencies.

A careful balance of diverging interests will have to be found in
further policy work. This balance will not only have to involve
considerations on how to ensure accurate WHOIS data: It will also have
to take into account the uses various parties may have for WHOIS data,
and the conditions under which the data are being made accessible. It
will, finally, have to take into account legitimate privacy interests
of registrants, and applicable laws in force in a wide variety of

Considering the Task Force's recommendations, the ALAC observes that
any measures designed to enforce accuracy of publicly available WHOIS
data against the will of the domain name holder will shift the
existing de-facto balance in a way which benefits those who want to
use the data (for whatever purpose, legitimate or illegitimate), and
which causes problems for those who don't want to publish these data
(once again, both for legitimate and illegitimate reasons).

The specific steps proposed in chapter II.1.B of the Task Force's
report describe a complaint mechanism, by which a third party can
trigger registrars to investigate the accuracy of existing WHOIS data.
This mechanism is presented as a practical recommendation, not as a
consensus policy. It is mostly based on the recommendations of the
GNSO's WHOIS Implementation Committee.

The ALAC appreciates that the process attempts to provide some basic
safeguards against fraudulent complaints by giving registrars some
leeway to ignore obviously unjustified complaints, and protect bona
fide registrants.

Once a complaint is found justified, the registrar will send an
inquiry to the registrant (through any available contact points), and
ask the registrant to provide updated information. Any updated
information received is subject to "commercially reasonable steps" to
check its plausibility; presumably, these steps will involve automated
heuristics. If these heuristics fail, "the registrant should be
required to provide further justification." ALAC interprets this to
imply that automated heuristic plausibility checks alone should not,
in general, be a reason for registrars to place existing domain names
on hold, or cancel registrations -- in particular in those situations
in which the registrant has been successfully contacted through some
communications channel. ALAC also observes that, given that many
registrars accept customers around the globe, it may frequently be
easy for bad faith registrants to provide "plausible" data which are
still not useable as contact information.

The registrant only has limited time to respond to registrar's
inquiry, which is not specified in the Task Force's final report. The
ALAC believes that the WHOIS Implementation Committee's proposal to
apply a 30 day time limit is reasonable. Shorter time limits bear a
variety of risks for bona fide registrants which have been pointed out
in many of the comments received by the WHOIS Task Force. If
necessary, the ALAC is available to contribute to any further
discussion of this issue.

When accurate WHOIS data are not provided during the correction
period, the domain name is put on hold according to the process
proposed by the Task Force; the registration is not immediately
cancelled. ALAC appreciates that this is a step designed in order to
provide additional safety to registrants, and to avoid certain
incentives for abuses of the accuracy complaint mechanism.

Bulk Access

The Task Force's policy 2.A proposes that "use of bulk access WHOIS
data for marketing should not be permitted." In order to implement
this policy, the Task Force suggests a change to the bulk access
agreement which is described in section 3.3.6 of the RAA, and observes
that the bulk-access provision in section of the RAA would
become inapplicable. The WHOIS Implementation Committee has, in its
final report, stated that more specific language defining "marketing
activities" would be desirable. The ALAC cautions that any such
specification would have to ensure that no marketing use of bulk data
is permitted unconditionally which would have been covered by the
current RAA language's opt-out provision.

The ALAC appreciates that the Task Force's recommendations are an
attempt to limit undesired side effects of bulk access. But it is not
clear to what extent the new policy will indeed have the desired
effect on marketing uses of WHOIS data, since the enforceability of
registrars' bulk access agreements is questionable.

Thus, while the ALAC clearly supports the Task Force's recommendation,
a more fundamental review of the RAA's bulk access provisions must be
undertaken. Those purposes within the scope of ICANN's mission and
core values for which bulk access needs to be granted (if any) should
be clearly identified, and bulk access should only be made available
for this limited set of purposes, and to trustworthy data users. The
review process will also need to take into account legal concerns,
such as the ones recently articulated in the European Commission's
contribution on WHOIS. The At-Large Advisory Committee considers a
review process of the RAA's bulk access provisions a priority, and
will contribute to it.

Besides these concerns about the RAA's bulk access provisions, the
At-Large Advisory Committee also observes that query-based WHOIS can
be abused to automatically obtain WHOIS information about large
numbers of domains, as evidenced by a recent attempt to copy Nominet's
WHOIS database.


The Task Force's recommendations to systematically enforce the
accuracy of WHOIS data shift the existing balance between the
interests of data users and data subjects in favor of data users. In
an environment where registrants have perceived "inaccurate" data to
be one of the most practical methods for protecting their privacy,
this shift of balance is reason for concern. It will inevitably
increase the need for privacy protection mechanisms to be built into
the contractual framework.

The Task Force's recommendations on Bulk Access remove one possibility
for undesirable uses of WHOIS data. The effectivity of this step is,
however, unclear since other ways to access WHOIS data en masse remain

Both observations together lead to the common conclusion that the Task
Force's recommendations can only be first steps towards a future WHOIS
policy environment. That future WHOIS policy environment will have to
be designed with a renewed focus on enforceability. In particular,
this implies that the future policy environment will have to directly
address major issues left open at this point of time - such as
registrants' privacy. Relying upon non-enforcement of policy instead
is not an option.

The ALAC is available to contribute to future discussions on revising
WHOIS policy. These discussions should begin as swiftly as possible.