Furor rages over ICANN and Facebook's bid to publish home addresses of website owners

Comment period over proposed changes to Whois ends today

A row over online privacy and domain-name ownership has reached its peak on the last day of its public comment period.

The proposal put forward by domain name overseer ICANN will prevent any owner of a "commercial" website from using so-called proxy services – where a third-party provides their corporate details on the records of a domain instead of the actual owner's.

This is useful if you're a small or one-person entity, or not really a commercial concern at all, and you want to keep your details private because you've registered your domain with your home address.

So using a third-party proxy means that when someone looks up the physical address registered to a domain name via Whois, the address returned will be the third party's and not the actual personal home address of the domain owner. It's like a PO Box on the internet. All domains must have a registered address, and domain records are publicly available.

Proponents of the plan to reveal people's addresses – which include, surprise, surprise, Facebook and brand protection company MarkMonitor – say it would "prevent malicious activity," and argue that criminals use the service to hide their true identities.

Opponents argue it would subject many groups, individuals, and organizations to harassment, and there is little or no evidence that such a change would reduce online crime. Private details should only be made available through a court order or similar official process, they contend.

The key contention is what denotes a "commercial" website. The report argues it is any website that solicits money; those opposed note that this would include many non-profits that allow for donations on their websites.

They said what...?

Although the proposal was put out for public comment on 5 May, it went unnoticed for nearly two months thanks to ICANN's flawed comment processes and the dense and convoluted style of its policy reports. When the proposal was first noticed by someone outside ICANN on 20 June, it quickly led to two campaign websites on the issue: RespectOurPrivacy.com and SaveDomainPrivacy.org. Within days, thousands of comments had been sent in opposition.

As it stands on the last day of the comment period – 7 July – there are over 11,000 responses and the issue may break the previous record when ICANN proposed giving the green light to internet extension '.xxx' which would be used exclusively for adult content websites (in that case there were 12,757 comments).

The vast majority of comments are opposed to the change, arguing broadly that "everyone deserves the right to privacy." However, there are a few comments in favor, including the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC), which says the proposal would "balance legitimate interests in protecting registrant information with the need for transparent, accessible and accurate Whois information."

On a road to nowhere

It is likely, however, that ICANN staff will propose pulling out or substantially modifying the proposal in the face of such heavy opposition, even from those who were previously advocates of limiting proxy services.

One response from the CEO of an ICANN-accredited registrar, Mark Jeftovic of easyDNS, has also been posted on industry site CircleID and repeatedly referenced.

In it, Jeftovic argues that while he was once in favor of not having proxy services, his company relented under pressure from customers and he has since seen its value, especially since most people who register domains have no idea that their private information is then posted publicly.

Moreover, he argues, the claimed benefits from banning proxy services for "commercial" websites will simply not happen, particularly since the very criminals that Facebook et al claim the change will uncover also provide fake details to the companies that register domain names on their behalf.

The comment period ends at midnight UTC on 7 July, and a staff report is due two weeks later on 21 July. ®


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