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DNS abuse: ICANN call for action – but is it enough?

ICANN's proposed amendments to registry and registrar contracts (RARAA), tackle DNS abuse head on, a positive step in the fight against internet abuse and cybercrime. But, are they enough? Read our thoughts here.

by Carel BitterJuly 25, 20234 minutes reading time

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Introduction

In May 2023, ICANN proposed a set of amendments to registry and registrar contracts (commonly known as the RA and the RAA) with an aim of targeting DNS abuse more effectively. This shift towards a more proactive approach signifies a crucial step towards mitigating internet abuse and cybercrime. The call for comments regarding these amendments is now closed. Learn more about the changes, and our answer to the question – “Are they enough?” For many years Spamhaus has maintained that registries and registrars play a vital role in mitigating, disrupting, and preventing various forms of internet abuse, cybercrime, and many other types of malicious activity. After all, many of these activities depend on the availability of at least one domain name to complete the chain of events that leads to the bad actor’s desired outcome. Whether it’s regular phishing, malware delivery, or more advanced activities like state-sponsored espionage, somewhere there is a domain name in play. Without one, these efforts often just cannot succeed.

Tackling DNS Abuse

In the gTLD space (generic names, as opposed to country-specific names), the ICANN Registry Agreement (RA) and 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA) govern everything related to a domain names’ lifecycle. The ICANN Organization has published a series of proposed amendments for these contracts, specifically dealing with DNS Abuse. DNS abuse in this case is defined as malware, botnets, phishing, pharming, and spam (in such cases wherein spam is used to deliver the previously mentioned forms of DNS abuse). We believe these amendments are a step in the right direction.

So, what’s changing?

In essence, the amendments look to strengthen obligations that require registrars and registries to stop or otherwise disrupt DNS abuse. From making abuse contacts readily accessible, to providing clarity around DNS abuse definition, to recognition of the different roles of registrar and registries (you can read an overview of the proposed amendments here).

There is one change, however, that on the surface seems simple, but has the potential to make a big difference. Under the newly proposed amendments, where DNS abuse is identified and a report is actionable, a registrar must:

Promptly take the appropriate mitigation action(s) that are reasonably necessary to stop, or otherwise disrupt, the Registered Name from being used for DNS Abuse. (Excerpt taken from the proposed RAA section 3.18.2)

While this may seem obvious, and in a sense, an expected behavior in 2023, the current version of the contract is much less clear about taking action on reports of DNS abuse:

Well-founded reports of Illegal Activity submitted to these contacts must be reviewed within 24 hours by an individual who is empowered by Registrar to take necessary and appropriate actions in response to the report. (Excerpt from the current 2013 RAA section 3.18.2)

In other words, while the current contract requires reports to be reviewed, the new contract requires action. It may seem like a small and even obvious change, but it has taken a long time to get here. At last, once the proposed changes to the RAA come into force, registrars who fail to act upon mitigating malicious domain names that they sponsor will be in breach of the RAA, allowing ICANN Contractual Compliance to investigate.

Couldn’t these changes be more ambitious?

Of course, they could! The meaning of terms like ‘prompt’, ‘reasonably necessary’ and ‘disrupt’, could be debated endlessly; there are many open ended ‘what-ifs’ and ‘it-depends’ in this conversation. Also, how DNS Abuse is currently defined leaves room for many abusive or malicious activities to go unaddressed.

And we wouldn’t be Spamhaus if we didn’t point out that the DNS Abuse definitions around spam could be much stronger. After all, authentication plays a vital role in modern email. Common SMTP authentication standards, such as SPF, DKIM and DMARC, rely heavily on domain names.

For more detailed feedback, Spamhaus contributed to M3AAWG’s comments on the ICANN amendments, which can be accessed here.

Amended is better than perfect

To us, this is positive progress that both empowers and puts a burden on parties who play a big part in enabling many abuse-related activities. It is a given that the ICANN multi-stakeholder process generally moves at a slow pace – note that this is a small update to a ten-year-old contract. This speed of change is a stark contrast to the relentless churn of tactics and operations in internet abuse, cybercrime and the many other forms of online malicious activity.

Given the challenge afoot, it seems to us that perfect is the enemy of the good and we’d much rather have something good, right now.