US Govt and Rightsholders Want WHOIS Data Accessible Again, to Catch Pirates


Copyright holders and the US Government want ICANN to make domain WHOIS data more accessible again. They say that this information is required to track down online pirates as well as other bad actors. If progress isn’t made soon, US Congress may have to step up and pass legislation to reach the desired effect, they warn.

It’s been nearly a year since the EU’s new privacy regulation, the GDPR, was implemented.

The GDPR requires many online services and tools to tighten their privacy policies. This also affects domain registrars.

Faced with this new regulation, the domain registrar oversight body ICANN implemented a temporary specification. This led to restrictions in access to personal data of site owners that would previously have been available through the WHOIS system.

The change was welcomed by privacy advocates and many domain registrants, but anti-piracy groups are not happy. Industry groups such as the MPAA use WHOIS information to investigate and go after pirate sites.

The Hollywood group has been rather adamant about its need to access WHOIS data. It previously warned the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration that a more open system will increase privacy, rather than the other way around.

Since then, little has changed. However, the MPAA remains determined. In a letter (pdf) sent to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) this week, it asks the US Government agency to help out. Ideally, it wants a system where authorized organizations get easy access.

“The MPAA requests that the FTC continue urging [ICANN] to expeditiously adopt and implement an access and accreditation model restoring the availability of WHOIS information to protect consumers and legitimate commerce, including to combat copyright infringement.

“The MPAA also asks the FTC to help ensure domain name providers diligently review and grant requests for such access until the model is implemented,” the anti-piracy group adds.

The movie industry group points out that, since the founding of the commercial Internet, WHOIS information has been the starting point to combat online crime,  including identity theft, theft of intellectual property, fraud, cyber attacks, illicit sale of opioids, and human trafficking.

The temporary solution ICANN has in place now is not a good alternative, the MPAA argues, as it unnecessarily restricts access. 

The MPAA is not the only industry group complaining about WHOIS restrictions. The Copyright Alliance, Creative Future, and the Independent Film and Television Alliance also sent a letter (pdf) to the FTC highlighting the same issue.

In addition, the US Government itself has chimed in as well. Last week David J. Redl, NTIA‘s Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, sent a letter to ICANN Chair Cherine Chalaby. In the letter, Redl urges ICANN to take “swift” action.

“The WHOIS information is a critical tool that helps to keep people accountable for what they do and put online. Law enforcement uses WHOIS to shut down criminal enterprises and malicious websites,” Redl writes.

Redl notes that he was pleased to see that, with help various stakeholders, some progress had been made. However, ICANN should continue to move forward, especially since the temporary specification expires next month.

“Now its time to deliberately and swiftly create a system that allows for third parties with legitimate interests, like law enforcement, IP rights holders, and cybersecurity experts to access non-public data critical to fulfilling their missions,” Redl notes.

The letter also comes with a sting. If ICANN fails to adopt a new policy, or at least get closer to it, US lawmakers may have to step in.

“Without clear and meaningful progress, alternative solutions such as calls for domestic legislation will only intensify and be considered,” Redl writes.

This option appears to be the subject of discussion behind closed doors, as the MPAA also brought it up in its letter to the FTC.

“In the event ICANN and domain name providers fail to do so, the U.S. Congress is well within its prerogatives to pass legislation preserving access to WHOIS information to protect its citizens and promote legitimate commerce,” the MPAA writes.

“Because of the importance of continued access to WHOIS information to the FTC and others, the MPAA asks the FTC and other agencies to support legislative efforts if such circumstances come to pass.”

It’s clear that the pressure is on.

Many thanks to TorrentFreak for the breaking news.

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