Wednesday, March 21, 2007

ICANN and Domain Name Privacy...

The way the system is currently set up, when a person creates a website they must register a domain name (ex. - with ICANN - an international consortium group that makes sure your domain name doesn't conflict with someone else's. In the past, registering a domain name with ICANN meant being required to provide your personally identifiable information such as your real mailing address, email address, telephone number, etc., all of which was then made publicly available to the world through the WHOIS database - which has been around since the first days of the internet.

Now, as this Wired article describes, a key task force has endorsed a plan to enhance the privacy of domain name registrants. If ICANN accepts the proposal, people and businesses could register their domain names through third-parties, thereby opting out of providing their personally identifiable information.

This strikes right at the heart of the internet privacy policy debate. To what extent should people's privacy be protected at the expense of better law enforcement?

On one side of the debate, privacy advocates have been pressuring ICANN to adopt such a proposal for years, claiming it will minimize spam, junk postal mail, telemarketing phone calls, and other abuses of having one's information made publicly available online. They argue it will also reduce the "chilling effects" on discourse and protect people who use their websites to criticize politicians and businesses.

On the other hand, critics claim that the new proposal, if passed, would only make law enforcement more difficult. "Businesses and intellectual-property lawyers [are] worried that cybersquatters and scam artists could more easily hide their identities", not to mention purveyors of child pornography and other harmful illicit websites that are illegal in the United States.

Which raises another issue altogether - the need for greater harmonization of laws between nations regarding the Web. In this case, European privacy laws are stricter than those in the United States, and as a result, this new proposal could be seen as a move towards appeasing the European legal community, while subverting the wishes of the U.S. and its law enforcement community.

Both sides in this debate have valid points, and neither stakes out an absurd or extremist position. The need for individual privacy on the internet must be enhanced a million times over from its current state, however complete anonymity online for everyone is neither realistic, nor desirable. After all, there are bad guys out there, and society has an interest in having them caught and convicted.

The proposal is flawed because it sways the pendulum a bit too far in the direction of privacy at the expense of law enforcement. A better compromise might be for ICANN to simply stop publishing the personal information of domain name registrants to the world, and, instead of allowing proxy third-parties, continue collecting that information but only make it available upon request to reasonable authorities (not spammers).


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