Thursday, November 04, 2004

Whois - another view

Blogger unfortunately does not have trackback, so I want to share a post by friend Bryan Murley about my position on "whois":

My USC friend Doug Fisher has weighed in several times on the use of Whois databases and journalistic efforts to keep the information open in them.

I think I disagree with Doug on this matter. Doug says:

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.

There is a conflicting message in the journalistic ethic here. On the one hand, journalists like Doug and myself want to be able to protect anonymous sources should people come looking for them (cf. the recent Valerie Plame scandal). One argument for this is that this allows people to to come forward and blow the whistle on official corruption, crime, etc. without fear of retribution or the loss of their livelihood. But on the Whois issue, journalists are weighing in the opposite direction. Anyone who posts on the Internet should be open to all the world to see. So a whistleblower who wants to protect his/her identity has to go through a professional journalist in order to be protected from possible recrimination.

There are other issues involved. Some people who post anonymously do so because they fear retribution at work for words or opinions that they post which may be contrary to the prevailing ideology of their workplace, or the petty paybacks of people who disagree with them. There have been several instances of bloggers who have lost their jobs because someone wrote to their place of employment.

By campaigning to open up the Whois database to more public inspection, we are going to be chilling free speech by closing off anonymity (with the exception, I suppose, of anonymous posting on other web sites, or on weblogs).

I understand Doug’s point. And the point of other journalists who are weighing in on the issue. But imagine if King George had been able to find out the Whois info on the anonymous pamphlet publishers in the American colonies? Would we be having this debate today?

Just something to think about.

I mostly disagree, but not totally. I've given much thought to this, and the free-comment aspects do concern me. But reality is that the Net is largely a vehicle of commerce, not of pamphleteering. That includes political commerce as we have seen happen in recent campaigns as "oppo" sites have mushroomed.

And a technical point: We are not campaigning to open whois information to "more" public inspection. We want to keep it the way it is now -- open -- and to force ICANN and others to clean up the databases and ensure their accuracy, as various agreements require.

There is a reasonable solution -- wall off part of the Net for sites such as Bryan notes, and keep that information private. I think whois info on the "name" extension, for instance, reasonably should be withheld. These are by definition people's private sites. We can debate some others. But that also requires ICANN and others to enforce the nomenclature system and make sure these extensions are not corrupted by squatters. The .com and .net and .org nomenclatures, for instance, have become so corrupted that, unfortunately, I think those who would use such sites for "pamphleteering" assume the risks. And, as Bryan notes, blogging sites provide a cloak of anonymity. Likewise, other aggregators such as geocities can be used. Perhaps even a new generation of such political expression aggregator sites would emerge. There are solutions.

Do we then encourage creation of "posting police"? I don't think so. I think the Net's self-enforcing nature would do the job. Those who felt a site with cloaked "whois" was improperly operating on a certain extension could report it. And a site need not be shut down -- just move it to the correct extension.

Is this style, not substance; does it matter whether a site is .com or, shall we say, ".pol"? Yes, it does. In this e-age, people, I believe, increasingly do filter their information and make their veracity judgments using such markers as aids. While we can -- and often do -- lament the decreased discrimination among information sources among our students, for instance, when I really sit and talk with them, I do see a process forming where such markers are being figured into the equation.

Electronic pamphleteering should be encouraged, but we must acknowledge the changed environment in which it operates, which the "pamphleteering" arguments largely do not do. No matter how altruistic our pamphleteer is, he or she now operates in a system that instantaneously can spread misinformation -- even deadly information -- around the globe. Journalists and others must have reasonable tools to seek the truth in that environment. I think we can find a way without the drastic scenario painted by some privacy advocates and the changes being considered by ICANN.


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