Is ICANN Going to Ruin Domain Privacy for Commercial Sites?

It’s not very often that we pay attention to the infrastructure that runs the Internet. Many of the decisions made by the organizations that run this infrastructure are very boring, but once in awhile we come across some that affect everyday life in a very impacting manner.

On the day this is being written, an organization known as ICANN is in the process of making a policy decision concerning DNS “whois” records that may expose people’s private information in certain circumstances. A domain name registrar called NameCheap has created a website with the name Respect Your Privacy that explains the policy in its own words. What’s going on? Is there yet another infringement of privacy in the works?

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So what’s the deal? What is ICANN proposing?

For the moment, nothing. Respect Your Privacy makes a note of linking to an ICANN report released on the 5th of May in 2015 regarding privacy and proxy accreditation issues. NameCheap says that ICANN – the organization that controls the allocation of domain names, IP addresses, national range distribution, and all of the other things that make it easy for you to use the web – is considering enacting a new policy that will forbid sites associated with “commercial activity” from using WHOIS protection.

What is WHOIS protection? Well, if you type in a WHOIS (a joining of the words “who” and “is”) request for a particular domain, you get a result that looks like this. The linked content contains the address and phone number of Google, Inc. What WHOIS protection does is replace that information with something else (usually it’s the protecting organization’s contact information). By not using that protection, you expose your address to the world.

Should ICANN decide to restrict commercial sites from using WHOIS protection, it will mean that in order for you as a business owner to have a presence on the web you will have to expose your address to everyone, everywhere. Of course you can always use the address of your business. But what if your business is headquartered at your home? Many freelancers find themselves in this situation, and higher-profile folks would prefer that their addresses remain private.

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I’ve taken the time before writing this to actually read through the 98-page document. The amount of topics discussed were extensive, so I will only be touching on the parts that refer to what Respect Your Privacy is talking about. And that’s how we end up on page 15, section 1.3.3:

Although the [working group] agreed that the mere fact that a domain name is registered by a commercial entity or by anyone conducting commercial activity should not preclude the use of P/P services, there was disagreement over whether domain names that are actively used for commercial transactions (e.g. the sale or exchange of goods or services) should be prohibited from using P/P services.

What is being said here is that there was a lack of consensus over whether WHOIS protection should be prohibited for commercial sites. The good thing is that most of the working group members err on the side of privacy, as seen here, which appears right after the above statement:

While most WG did not believe such a prohibition is necessary or practical, some members believed that registrants of such domain names should not be able to use or continue using P/P services.

And because there is a lack of consensus, section 1.3.4 (General) states that the working group “welcomes community input.” The “Respect Your Privacy” site by NameCheap provides a way for you to actually provide your input, and the period for commentary will last up until July 7, 2015.

If you do not think that the implications of this policy could lead to harmful results, at the risk of sounding biased, I advise you to reconsider. You are basically told to advertise your address of business to the world. This may not be a problem if you own and run a shop that anyone can find publicly anyway, but it certainly is an issue if you’re an interpreter, a writer, the owner of a home-run business, or any other occupation that benefits from a web presence but operates solely out of your home address.

What do you think? Should all sites engaging in commercial activity be forced to transparently display their addresses in their WHOIS records? Tell us in a comment!