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Photo: Martin Konopka/EyeEm/Getty Images

Cybersecurity stakeholders are pushing U.S. lawmakers to rescue WHOIS, a tool for identifying internet domain ownership that's been hamstrung by the EU's privacy regulations.

Why it matters: WHOIS has been a public address book for domain owners since the earliest days of the internet. A bevy of online investigators — from law enforcement authorities to human rights groups to cybersecurity researchers — have long relied on its data. But the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deems the information in WHOIS to be too personal to share without a thorough consent agreement.

GDPR, which turns 1 in May, applies to any company doing business with Europe. Many registrars, the authorities who dole out domains (names like "axios.com"), have responded by simply not providing data to WHOIS.

This is a feature, not a bug. Before GDPR took effect, ICANN, the governing body for internet domain names, and several researchers told the EU that this was going to be a problem. But EU legislators chose not to fix it.

  • "When investigators interacted with the EU, the EU took the position, 'Our job is to make the law, your job is to interpret it,'" said Tim Chen, CEO of DomainTools, a cybersecurity firm originally known for simplifying access to tools like WHOIS.

The impact: Online investigators use WHOIS information for more than just contacting a website's owner.

  • Cross-referencing WHOIS data is a good way to find broader criminal activity and prevent attacks. The emails used to register one site used in a phishing campaign can be used to find other sites run by the same party.
  • The same technique can be used to find sites co-owned by someone hosting terrorist propaganda or a website used to control or distribute malware.

But it's not just cybercrime. CINTOC (the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime) is a charitable group that uses WHOIS to fight organized crime in vulnerable populations, including human trafficking and natural resource and wildlife crimes.

  • "Criminals have web presences. I can use that information to go to a criminal's bank and get financial details," said Kathleen Miles, CINTOC director of analysis. "But when GDPR went through, we lost that connection. We lost it in Africa. We lost it in Europe. We lost it in a lot of the United States as well."

Because the EU is the only jurisdiction with a law that applies to WHOIS, Chen fears ICANN, which is currently updating its WHOIS guidelines, will have nothing to counterbalance GDPR's strictures.

The answer, according to a coalition that includes DomainTools, CINTOC and others, is for the U.S. to pass its own law requiring that websites designed to interact with U.S. citizens participate in WHOIS.

  • That group, called the Coalition for a Secure and Transparent Internet (CSTI), is currently meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about their ideas and is drafting model legislation.
  • CSTI also includes trade associations that protect commercial interests, like legitimate online pharmacies who need WHOIS to thwart phony competitors, and the MPAA and RIAA, entertainment industry groups that use WHOIS as a tool against piracy sites.

By the numbers: A survey conducted by two cybersecurity industry groups showed 80% of investigators who used WHOIS before GDPR began were unable to find an equally useful replacement.

  • "We knew it was going to be a problem," said Chen. "Now we have data to show we were right."

The bottom line: Regulating privacy is a complex balancing act. In this case, an important piece of internet infrastructure has become collateral damage to the GDPR, and eyes are on the U.S. for a fix.

Go deeper: EU data law may not have caused the expected sketchy website boom

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported a quotation by Tim Chen of DomainTools about the EU's stance toward investigators.

Go deeper

Updated 22 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.

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