Law enforcement push for stricter domain name rules

The changes would make it more difficult for criminals to register under false details for domain names

Law enforcement officials in the U.K. and U.S. are pushing the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to put in place measures that would help reduce abuse of the domain name system.

Now it is "ridiculously easy" to register a domain name under false details, said Paul Hoare, senior manager and head of e-crime operations for the U.K.'s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

Domain names can be used for all kinds of criminal activity, ranging from phishing to trademark abuse to facilitating botnets. Law enforcement often run into difficulty when investigating those domains, as criminals use false details and stolen credit cards.

The FBI and SOCA have submitted a set of recommendations to ICANN for how it could strengthen Registration Accreditation Agreements (RAAs). The agreement is a set of terms and conditions that a registrar -- an entity that can accept domain name registrations -- would be subject to in order to run their business. ICANN's RAA applies to registrars for generic top-level domains (gTLDs), such as ".com."

The ideas from the FBI and SOCA have not been publicly revealed but include stronger verification of registrants' name, address, phone number, e-mail address and stronger checks on how they pay for a domain name, Hoare said.

Those financial checks are already done for e-commerce transactions, so "there's no reason why the registries and domain registrars can't do the same thing," Hoare said. Many registrars and registries already do this, he said.

Such a system doesn't not mean false details won't still be found in WHOIS, the directory listing for who owns a domain name. However, "it means criminals have to do some more work to register," Hoare said.

The movement underscores long-running concerns about WHOIS. An ICANN-commissioned study released last month of 1,419 gTLDs found that only 23 percent of the WHOIS records were fully accurate. The current highly automated system "allow criminals to register domain names anonymously," Hoare said.

ICANN has formed a working group within the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), which formulates the organization's domain name policy, to evaluate proposals from law enforcement in addition to others, said Margie Milam, ICANN's senior policy counselor.

ICANN's RAA was amended in 2009, but some stakeholders felt the changes did not go far enough, Milam said. In contrast, larger registrars feel they are doing better in stopping domain name abuse and do not want to see something codified that may not be appropriate in the future, she said.

"There's a bit of resistance that some things are too onerous," Milam said.

The GNSO will work with registrars on the amendments and vote on the changes, which then must be approved by ICANN's board of directors, she said. The GNSO should issue a report on its progress in a few months, she said.

Some registries already have strong rules for their registrars. Nominet, which administers the country-code ".uk" domain names, doesn't allow the use of privacy services for domain name registrants, although it does allow registrants to mask their real address from the WHOIS, said Nick Wenban-Smith, senior legal counsel.

Nominet is different from other registries. It is a country-code registry and is autonomous from ICANN. Its registrars don't have be accredited by ICANN but by Nominet, which has a different RAA.

Nominet requires its registrars to obtain accurate information. Nominet is also what's known as a "thick" registry in that it also keeps all of information around domain name registrations collected by its registrars, which also helps for law enforcement and verification purposes, Wenban-Smith said. "Thin" registries don't keep that information, which is held by their registrars.

The system isn't perfect, but Nominet is able to keep tighter control over domain names, Wenban-Smith said. Nominet has at times booted registrars that haven't been able to live up to the RAA, he said.

The country-code top-level domain registry that administers ".eu" -- Eurid -- has one to two staff members that check for malicious domain name registrations from its registrars, said Herman Sobrie, legal manager for Eurid.

Eurid does require its registrars to verify certain data, but "even if we add more obligations to the list, there will always be some registrars that aren't all that vigilant in their checks," Sobrie said.

"We are always evaluating new ways of ensuring the accuracy of the information in the WHOIS," Sobrie said.

But the problem with ICANN and its gTLD registries is not likely to be solved soon, said Josh Bourne, president of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, which focuses on cybersquatting, a practice in which similar domain names are registered that could be mistaken for a legitimate company's Web site.

ICANN has launched initiatives in the past in regards to the WHOIS but the problems persist. Registrars oppose having more restrictions placed on them, but law enforcement is frustrated, Bourne said.

"They are ineffective in their duty because they can't find the criminals," Bourne said.

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