From an early point in the current global crisis, it was clear to Tucows (Enom’s parent company) that we were going to need to do something new and different in how we responded to COVID-19 related domain registrations. Many of these domains are registered for good, helpful purposes, such as community organization, dissemination of healthcare information, and recording people’s experiences through this pandemic. Others, however, purport to sell COVID-19 cures, vaccines, or tests, none of which are legitimately available on the market today and all of which pose a significant health risk to the general public.
This blog post is going to run through the what, why, and how of our response to problematic or abusive COVID-19 related domain names and provide suggestions as to how our resellers and other hosting and CMS companies can help.
Before we dive in, we want to emphasize that this global pandemic is an exceptional situation, requiring Tucows to explore approaches we would not consider in other circumstances.
In helping to develop the DNS Abuse Framework, Tucows spent substantial time considering how domain names may be used to cause a threat to human life, and this work has been immensely valuable within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also important to note that our response to each and every issue that we find is contextual and dependent on the specific circumstances. We expect to return to our regular procedures as the pandemic and corresponding risks subsides.
There are three major components to our COVID-19 related activities: identification, assessment for harm, and stakeholder engagement.
Tucows uses a relatively simple keyword search on all domains registered since December 2019 to flag relevant domains for manual review. We are also matching domain names on our platform to a number of externally-sourced COVID-19 related blocklists. Every day, members of our Compliance teamwork through our list of COVID-19 related registrations.
Assessment for Harm
As we mentioned above, a considerable number of COVID-19 related domain registrations are doing good and important things. We’ve seen many official websites from communities, hospitals, and other organizations come online over the past few weeks. Often, it is faster and easier for these organizations to use the website builder products offered by our reseller partners than for these organizations to host and build a site on their own infrastructure.
As Tucows is primarily concerned with domain names that represent threats to human life, we are prioritizing looking for those that resolve to websites purporting to sell COVID-19 tests or cures. We are deeply worried about the possibility that someone could take a fake test and then, based on those results, continue to spread COVID-19 in their community, endangering many others. We have found very few of these sites so far, but when we do, we ask the registrant for documentation that proves their legitimacy and authorization to sell. This is very similar to our standard practice for addressing reports of harmful online pharmaceuticals.
At this time, we have yet to see a site offering an unambiguous (albeit fake) cure that presents a risk of imminent human harm. We have seen cure-adjacent sites, purporting, for example, the (dubious) benefits of high-doses of vitamin C and the practice of alternative medicine. We’ve flagged these for review, but have not removed them from the DNS at this time.
Other types of Harm
We have also seen a number of COVID-19 phishing, botnet, and malware abuse issues; fortunately, we already have clear and well-established practices for dealing with these. For reports of misinformation, disinformation, price gouging, or fraud, we are working with regulators and law enforcement wherever possible to address these websites as we do not have the appropriate tools or experience to assess these independently.
Engagement with Stakeholders
An important component to all of the above has been communicating consistently with a variety of different stakeholders. This has included a number of our reseller partners who have seen large numbers of COVID-19 registrations. It has also included conversations with different law enforcement agencies, governments, and regulators. Our goal in these conversations is both to be transparent in what we can and cannot do and to ensure that the work of assessing website content is handled by those who are appropriately trained and empowered to do so wherever possible.
At least one major registrar has effectively blocked incoming COVID-19 related domain registrations. Tucows has chosen not to do this for a number of reasons; the primary one is that the Internet is an immensely powerful tool, especially in times of crisis where coordination is essential. The amazing sharing of information, mashups of data, official sites and even art that we’ve seen in our review is a daily reminder that allowing for creation is important. We think it’s important that registrants are able to respond as they see fit to the crisis, without impediment or delay. This approach vastly increases our burden and puts us in the uncomfortable position of having to assess the level of harm represented by a COVID-related domain and the website to which it resolves. However, we feel these circumstances are exceptional and are determined to do our part.
Steps our resellers can take
Hosting companies, CMS providers, and ecommerce platforms are in a better position than domain registrars to address content-related issues. Tucows resellers who offer these services may have the ability to remove specific pages or items from online stores whereas registrars have only one very blunt tool: we can take down the domain. To this end, we are also encouraging our resellers to monitor their registrations and platforms for COVID-19 related content. Now is an excellent time to review your Terms of Service and consider how you might apply them in the current circumstances. If you’re a Tucows reseller and would like assistance identifying COVID-19 related registrations, please reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Report COVID-19 Related Abuse
If you would like to report a COVID-19 related domain registered with Tucows that appears to be problematic, please submit an abuse complaint here: https://tucowsdomains.com/report-abuse/
Lastly, like all complicated problems, COVID-19 requires a regular review of our processes and iterating where possible in a very short amount of time. We, like you, very much look forward to a return to normalcy.