Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

That seems to an uncomfortable message emerging from ICANN’s ongoing discussions about SSAD, the proposed Standardized System for Access and Disclosure, which promises to bring some costly and potentially useless reform to the global Whois system.

ICANN’s board of directors and the GNSO Council met via Zoom last night to share their initial reactions to the ICANN staff’s SSAD Operational Design Assessment, which had been published just 48 hours earlier.

I think it’s fair to say that while there’s still some community enthusiasm for getting SSAD done in one form or another, there’s much more skepticism, accompanied by a fear that the whole sorry mess is going to make ICANN and its vaunted multistakeholder model look bad/worse.

Some say that implementing SSAD, which could take six more years and cost tens of millions of dollars, would harm ICANN’s reputation if, as seems quite possible, hardly anyone ends up using it. Others say the risk comes from pissing away years of building community consensus on a set of policy recommendations that ultimately don’t get implemented.

GNSO councillor Thomas Rickert said during yesterday’s conference call:

One risk at this stage that I think we need to discuss is the risk to the credibility of the functionality of the multi-stakeholder model. Because if we give up on the SSAD too soon, if we don’t come up with a way forward on how to operationalize it, then we will be seen as an organization that takes a few years to come up with policy recommendations that never get operationalized and that will certainly play into the hands of those who applaud the European Commission for coming up with ideas in NIS2, because obviously they see that the legislative process at the European and then at the national state level is still faster than ICANN coming up with policies.

NIS2 is a formative EU Directive that is likely to shake up the privacy-related legal landscape yet again, almost certainly before ICANN’s contractors even type the first line of SSAD code.

While agreeing with Rickert’s concerns, director Becky Burr put forward the opposing view:

The flip side of that is that we build it, we don’t have the volume to support it at a reasonable cost basis and it does not change the outcome of a request for access to the Whois data… We build it, with all its complexity and glory, no one uses it, no one’s happy with it and that puts pressure on the multi-stakeholder model. I’m not saying where I come out on this, but I feel very torn about both of those problems.

The ODA estimates the cost of building SSAD at up to $27 million, with the system not going live until 2027 or 2028. Ongoing annual operating costs, funded by fees collected from the people requesting private Whois data, could range from $14 million to $107 million, depending on how many people use it and how frequently.

These calculations are based on an estimated user base of 25,000 and three million, with annual queries of 100,000 and 12 million. The less use the system gets, the higher the per-query cost.

But some think the low end of these assumptions may still be too high, and that ultimately usage would be low enough to make the query fees so high that users will abandon the system.

Councillor Kurt Pritz said:

I think there’s a material risk that the costs are going to be substantially greater than what’s forecast and the payback and uptake is going to be substantially lower… I think there’s reputational risk to ICANN. We could build this very expensive tool and have little or no uptake, or we could build a tool that becomes obsolete before it becomes operational.

The low-end estimates of 25,000 users asking for 100,000 records may be “overly optimistic”, Pritz said, given that only 1,500 people are currently asking registrars for unredacted Whois records. Similarly, there are only 25,000 requests per year right now, some way off the 100,000 low-end ODA assumption, he said.

If SSAD doesn’t even hit its low-end usage targets, the fee for a single Whois query could be even larger than the $40 high-end ODA prediction, creating a vicious cycle in which usage drops further, further increasing fees.

SSAD doesn’t guarantee people requesting Whois data actually get it, and bypassing SSAD entirely and requesting private data directly from a registrar would still be an option.

There seems to be a consensus now that GDPR always requires registries and registrars to ultimately make the decision as to whether to release private data, and there’s nothing ICANN can do about it, whether with SSAD or anything else.

CEO Göran Marby jokingly said he’s thinking about getting a T-shirt printed that says “GDPR was not my fault”.

“The consequences of GDPR on the whole system is not something that ICANN can fix, that’s something for the legislative, European Commission and other ones to fix,” he said. “We can’t fix the law.”

One idea to rescue SSAD, which has been floated before and was raised again last night, is to cut away the accreditation component of the system, which Marby reckons accounts for about two thirds of the costs, and basically turn SSAD into a simplified, centralized “ticketing system” (ironically, that’s the term already used derisively to describe it) for handling data requests.

But the opposing view — that the accreditation component is actually the most important part of bringing Whois into GDPR compliance — was also put forward.

Last night’s Zoom call barely moved the conversation forward, perhaps not surprisingly given the limited amount of time both sides had to digest the ODA, but it seems there may be future conversations along the same lines.

ICANN’s board, which was in “listening mode” and therefore pretty quiet last night, is due to consider the SSAD recommendations, in light of the ODA, at some point in February.

I would be absolutely flabberghasted if they were approved in full. I think it’s far more likely that the policy will be thrown back to the GNSO for additional work to make it more palatable.

The post “GDPR is not my fault!” — ICANN fears reputational damage from Whois reform first appeared on Domain Incite.

Original article: “GDPR is not my fault!” — ICANN fears reputational damage from Whois reform

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