What Should ICANN do about WHOIS?

by on October 30, 2007 · 11 comments

One of the largest issues to be considered here at the Los Angeles ICANN meeting is about WHOIS. As the AP reports, there are proposals to eliminate the WHOIS database, modify the information process, or call for more studies. Indeed, there’s a lot of people interested in this topic, particularly privacy advocates on the one side and trademark owners on the other.

But there’s more to this issue than privacy and IP rights. The reality is that WHOIS is important for law enforcement to track criminals that steal personal information.

What is WHOIS? It’s the publicly available database that reveals the contact information for who owns a domain name.  ICANN has grappled about what to do with WHOIS for a long time, and this week we’ll see action by ICANN’s board of directors as to whether to approve a new proposal to create an operational point of contact (OPoC) or to even eliminate WHOIS, so that registrants don’t have to provide their contact information for the whole world — or the dictator in an authoritarian country — to see.

This is a controversial proposal. Registrars – the websites that you go to to register a name – would love to see OPoC because it gives them another point of revenue. They’d be the ones that could operate the systems to designate an OPoC. But there are a lot of questions raised. How does a point of contact relay information to the registrant? How quickly would it have to respond to law enforcement? Or a trademark owner?

In addition to the OPoC supporters, there are those that would like to abandon WHOIS entirely. This would be a mistake, as Saul Hansell writes in his New York Times blog:

To my mind, whois is mostly a good thing. If you are going to stand up in public and say something, it seems to me that you should give people some sort of way of talking back to you. Then again, there is a lot to be said for anonymous speech some times.

Indeed, all things considered getting rid of WHOIS would be a mistake. Because it helps law enforcement tack down phishing scams and other online ways for identity theft, WHOIS helps protect our personal information. WHOIS isn’t perfect, and is certainly not 100% accurate, but according to the FTC it’s a useful tool.

But I’m not making the decision – we’ll know more on Thursday.

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