The US Food and Drug Administration has escalated its beef with ICANN, warning that inaccessible Whois data is making it harder to tackle bogus Covid-19 “cures” and the country’s opioid crisis.
Catherine Hermsen from the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations wrote to ICANN CEO Göran Marby last week to complain that some registrars do not adequately respond to abuse complaints and that ICANN ignores follow-up complaints from government agencies.
She doubled down on the FDA’s previous complaint that ICANN’s inaction may be because it is funded by the industry, but back-pedaled on previous insinuations that ICANN’s leadership were putting their own big salaries ahead of public safety.
The beef started in early June, when an organization called Coalition for a Secure & Transparent Internet — basically a front for the likes of DomainTools and other companies whose business models are threatened by privacy legislation — held a one-sided webinar entitled “The Threat of a Dark WHOIS”.
On that webinar, Daniel Burke, chief of the FDA’s Investigative Services Division, lamented the lack of cooperation his agency gets when requesting private Whois data from “certain” registrars, and pointed to cases where the FDA’s inability to quickly get fake pharma sites, including those related to Covid-19, shut down have led to deaths.
He also said that complaints to ICANN about non-compliant registrars fall on deaf ears, to the point that it no longer bothers complaining, and suggested that ICANN and domain companies are financially incentivized to be uncooperative.
Burke quoted the writer Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
“I have found that’s the case with my interactions with ICANN and certain registries and registrars,” Burke said. “They just don’t want to listen… it’s a money-maker for them right now, it’s not profitable for them to deal with it.”
Marby also “spoke” on the CSTI webinar, but his brief intervention was actually just an out-of-context snippet — the “GDPR is not my fault!” T-shirt speech — taken from a recording of an ICANN webinar back in January and presented — dishonestly in my opinion — as if it had been filmed as a contribution to the CSTI discussion.
His inability to directly respond to Burke live led him to write to the FDA (pdf) a couple of weeks later to dispute some of his claims.
First, Marby said the the FDA does not need to obtain a subpoena to get access to Whois data. Registrars are obliged to respond to “legitimate interest” requests, when balanced against the privacy rights of the registrant, he said. He added:
In a few instances, government agencies have submitted complaints to ICANN Contractual Compliance regarding registrars’ refusal to provide non-public registration data. These agencies were ultimately successful in gaining access to the requested data without having to obtain a subpoena or lawful order.
Second, Marby disputed the financial motivation claims, writing: “ICANN’s leadership’s salaries are in no way tied to or dependent upon domain name registrations.”
Third, he offered a (pretty weak, in my view) defense against the claim that ICANN ignores complaints from government agencies, pointing out: “ICANN is not political and, therefore, takes actions to ensure that the workings of the Internet are not politicized.”
He also pointed out that ICANN operates a system called DNSTICR which monitors reports of DNS abuse related to the pandemic and alerts the relevant registries and registrars.
The problem here is that ICANN’s definition of abuse is pretty narrow and does not extend to web sites that sell industrial bleach as a Covid cure. That would count as “content” and ICANN is not the “content police”.
That’s pretty much what Hermsen says in the latest missive (pdf) in this row.
DNS security threats such as malware and phishing, however, were not what SA Burke was referring to in his presentation. Given the agency’s public health mission, FDA has been working during the pandemic to protect Americans from unproven or fraudulent medical products claiming to treat, cure, prevent, mitigate or diagnose COVID-19…
Given your stated concerns regarding COVID-19-related malware and phishing activity, we trust that you are equally concerned about registrars who may not be following the [Registrar Accreditation Agreement’s] requirements to “investigate” and “respond appropriately” following receipt of notifications about abuse, particularly complaints reporting activity involving COVID-19-related fraud or activity exacerbated the current opioid addiction crisis — especially in light of ICANN’s singular ability to enforce the terms of RAAs.
She also comes back, splitting hairs in my opinion, on the ICANN salaries claim, stating: “SA Burke was not referring to ICANN’s leadership salaries… SA Burke was referring more generally to the substantial source of funding ICANN receives from domain name registries and registrars.”
ICANN has just started work on a Whois Disclosure System that, while pretty weak, may make it slightly easier for government agencies to obtain the data they want.