Friday, October 01, 2004

More on the "whois" issue - WSJ weighs in

Back at the beginning of August, I wrote that journalism organizations needed to get together and oppose efforts under way to put the Internet "whois" databases off limits or severely limit their use by masking and incorrect entries. These databases are mandated by ICANN, the overseer of the Internet, to contain basic information about Web site ownership and contact information and to be made available to the public. There are a number of whois search engines. Gary Price at the Resource Shelf suggests one of the best is www.whois.sc.

I still have not seen much from any of the major organizations, such as SPJ and IRE, but maybe a front-page article in Thursday's Wall Street Journal (reg req) will get some action started on this. Carl Bialik reports that while only about 1 percent of the 42.2 million Web sites ending in com, biz, net, org, info and us are masked, among new registrants "nearly 5 percent are seeking to shield their names and contact information." That's based on information from Name Intelligence Inc., which tracks the industry. Bialik reports there have been 6.3 million new registrations so far this year. Do the math and that's 315,000 sites where someone is hiding behind phony information.

Along with allowing phone information into the database, which is not supposed to be done,several Internet site registrars offer a service for an extra fee in which the whois information shown to the public is "masked" -- the contact information is not that of the site owner but instead links to the registrar, which then can pass on any inquiries to the real site owner. In 2002, for instance, ICANN proposed sanctions against Network Solutions, one of the largest Web site registrars, for failing to correct errors in its whois database and failing to respond when those errors were pointed out. Network Solutions is one of the chief providers of masking services and is asking ICANN to put whois information off limits. Of course, while it is doing this, it also is providing a central link to various whois services.

As the WSJ article points out, the problem is highlighted in a political season when attack Web sites sprout to do their mischief. But at any time, whois is too valuable a resource for journalists to let it get put off-limits or made irrelevant by masking services.

The other side of this comes from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, for instance, which argues that the whois databases were really only designed to help solve technical problems and that people should not have to give up their privacy to spammers and the like. Price provides some excellent links to Epic's position and a link to an EPIC report (pdf) on the issue. (He also provides another link to a good overview of the issue from govexec.com.) Here is another link from The Public Voice.

I respectfully disagree. When you post a Web site, you are publishing to the world. If newspapers, magazines and broadcast operations must provide basic, accurate ownership information to the public, Web sites should have to do the same thing.

I don't think journalists can sit on the sidelines on this one. While ICANN's official comment period on updates to the whois regulations closed in July, some members of Congress are concerned about the threat of putting this valuable resources behind a wall. There is likely to be much more debate.

Many thanks to Gary Price for valuable background information after my earlier post.

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