The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in EU law covering data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union.
As more and more personal data is gathered, stored and (ab)used online, the aim of the GDPR is to protect EU citizens from breaches of privacy. The regulation applies to all companies processing the personal data of subjects residing in the Union, no matter where in the world the company is located.
Penalties for non-compliance can be severe. While there is a tiered approach according to severity, organizations can be fined up to 4% of annual global turnover or €20 million, whichever is greater. Needless to say, the regulations will need to be taken seriously.
Among those affected are domain name registries and registrars who publish the personal details of domain name owners in the public WHOIS database. In a full entry, a person or organization’s name, address, telephone numbers and email addresses can often be found.
This raises a serious issue. While registries and registrars are instructed and contractually obliged to publish data in the WHOIS database by global domain name authority ICANN, in millions of cases this conflicts with the requirements of the GDPR, which prevents the details of private individuals being made freely available on the Internet.
As explained in detail by the EFF, ICANN has been trying to resolve this clash. Its proposed interim model for GDPR compliance (pdf) envisions registrars continuing to collect full WHOIS data but not necessarily publishing it, to “allow the existing data
to be preserved while the community discussions continue on the next generation of WHOIS.”
But the proposed changes that will inevitably restrict free access to WHOIS information has plenty of people spooked, including thousands of companies belonging to entertainment industry groups such as the MPAA, IFPI, RIAA and the Copyright Alliance.
In a letter sent to Vice President Andrus Ansip of the European Commission, these groups and dozens of others warn that restricted access to WHOIS will have a serious effect on their ability to protect their intellectual property rights from “cybercriminals” which pose a threat to their businesses.
Signed by 50 organizations involved in IP protection and other areas of online security, the letter expresses concern that in attempting to comply with the GDPR, ICANN is on a course to “over-correct” while disregarding proportionality, accountability and transparency.
“We strongly assert that this model does not properly account for the critical public and legitimate interests served by maintaining a sufficient amount of data publicly available while respecting privacy interests of registrants by instituting a tiered or layered access system for the vast majority of personal data as defined by the GDPR,” the groups write.
The letter focuses on two aspects of “over-correction”, the first being ICANN’s proposal that no personal data whatsoever of a domain name registrant will be made available “without appropriate consideration or balancing of the countervailing interests in public disclosure of a limited amount of such data.”
In response to ICANN’s proposal that only the province/state and country of a domain name registrant be made publicly available, the groups advise the organization that publishing “a natural person registrant’s e-mail address” in a publicly accessible WHOIS directory will not constitute a breach of the GDPR.
“[W]e strongly believe that the continued public availability of the registrant’s e-mail address – specifically the e-mail address that the registrant supplies to the registrar at the time the domain name is purchased and which e-mail address the registrar is required to validate – is critical for several reasons,” the groups write.
“First, it is the data element that is typically the most important to have readily available for law enforcement, consumer protection, particularly child protection, intellectual property enforcement and cybersecurity/anti-malware purposes.
“Second, the public accessibility of the registrant’s e-mail address permits a broad array of threats and illegal activities to be addressed quickly and the damage from such threats mitigated and contained in a timely manner, particularly where the abusive/illegal activity may be spawned from a variety of different domain names on different generic Top Level Domains,” they add.
The groups also argue that since making email addresses is effectively required in light of Article 5.1(c) ECD, “there is no legitimate justification to discontinue public availability of the registrant’s e-mail address in the WHOIS directory and especially not in light of other legitimate purposes.”
The EFF, on the other hand, says that being able to contact a domain owner wouldn’t necessarily require an email address to be made public.
“There are other cases in which it makes sense to allow members of the public to contact the owner of a domain, without having to obtain a court order,” EFF writes.
“But this could be achieved very simply if ICANN were simply to provide something like a CAPTCHA-protected contact form, which would deliver email to the appropriate contact point with no need to reveal the registrant’s actual email address.”
The groups’ second main concern is that ICANN reportedly makes no distinction between name registrants that are “natural persons versus those that are legal entities” and intends to treat them all as if they are subject to the GDPR, despite the fact that the regulation only applies to data associated with an “identified or identifiable natural person”.
They say it is imperative that EU Data Protection Authorities are made to understand that when registrants obtain a domain for illegal purposes, they often only register it as a “natural person” when registering as a legal person (legal entity) would be more appropriate, despite that granting them less privacy.
“Consequently, the test for differentiating between a legal and natural person should not merely be the legal status of the registrant, but also whether the registrant is, in fact, acting as a legal or natural person vis a vis the use of the domain name,” the groups note.
“We therefore urge that ICANN be given appropriate guidance as to the importance of maintaining a distinction between natural person and legal person registrants and keeping as much data about legal person domain name registrants as publicly accessible as possible,” they conclude.
What will happen with WHOIS on May 25 still isn’t clear. It wasn’t until October 2017 that ICANN finally determined that it would be affected by the GDPR, meaning that it’s been scrambling ever since to meet the compliance date. And it still is, according to the latest available documentation (pdf).