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The Continuing WHOIS Disappearing Act

WHOIS is about to become even harder to find. ICANN has recently concluded long-delayed contract negotiations with industry meant to accommodate the technical migration from the WHOIS protocol to the Registration Data Access Protocol (RDAP). Instead of limiting the changes to what’s necessary to implement the new technical protocol, the proposals effectively gut WHOIS, making it virtually impossible to find by eliminating web-based WHOIS access, a tool relied on by consumers to do lookups at a registrar or registry’s website.

Even more troubling, the proposed changes are expected to be rubber-stamped regardless of the output of the public comment period that is currently open. It was revealed during last week’s Contracted Parties Summit, an annual gathering of registries and registrars hosted by ICANN, that these proposals will be fast tracked for adoption in the next few months. This example highlights the deeply flawed multi-stakeholder model in action. Instead of assuming that input from businesses, governments, cyber-security experts, and end-users (all part of the multi-stakeholder model) will be valuable and robustly analyzed, both the industry and ICANN take the position that these stakeholders need not be considered when amending contracts.

It makes you wonder whether this is an oversight or whether ICANN and the contracted parties simply are plowing forward with hiding—rather than preserving—WHOIS to the greatest extent possible.

In a time when WHOIS data is already endangered, removing the publicly available lookup functions will essentially slash the public’s ability even to find the most minute elements of WHOIS data. Apparently, law enforcement, cybersecurity authorities, intellectual property rights holders and others with a legitimate interest in WHOIS data will need to funnel their requests through ICANN’s own lookup tool, or through third-party providers with lookup capability. That is, of course, if they happen to know where to look, and don’t have their access cut off during a crisis by query rate-limiting.

If ICANN’s tool doesn’t pan out, best of luck to you in identifying where to direct your WHOIS inquiry. Naturally, this raises all types of concern, not the least of which is one of consumer protection. Those with the urgent need to enforce the law, look after the welfare of customers or internet users at large, or even figure out who to call with a problem, will be even further frustrated by this pulling of yet another rug out from under the public interest.

ICANN has done another outstanding job of collaborating with the domain industry to advance the latter’s agenda. Of late, it has done a dismal job with transparency, a purported hallmark of the multistakeholder model. The great WHOIS disappearing trick is the latest in the recent string of decisions that tell the public its interests really don’t matter.

By Fabricio Vayra, Partner at Perkins Coie LLP

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Whois is currently only provided out of good-will - requiring RDAP already killed it Volker Greimann  –  Nov 28, 2022 8:34 AM

As the RAA states in its RDDS (Whois Spec):

“_Until ICANN requires a different protocol,_ Registrar will operate a WHOIS service available via port 43 (...) and a web-based Directory Service (...)”

gTLD registries and registrars were required by ICANN to implement RDAP services by 26 August 2019 (https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/legal-notice-implementation-rdap-service-27feb19-en.pdf)

In other words: WHOIS is already on life support and provided by registrars out of good-will. This process is just window-dressing of something that was already decided.

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