Building your own website has never been easier. Type those words into Google, and you’ll discover numerous companies that offer cheap services to help design, manage and register your site.
But for several years a quiet battle has been raging over a controversial aspect of website ownership: namely whether the name and contact details of the person who registers a new website should be made available to the public.
At the moment, anyone who registers a website domain name is held in ICANN’s searchable whois database. For example, click here to find out who ‘owns’ panos.org.
Caught in the middle are the internet domain registrars, which are required to provide this information as part of their contractual obligations to ICANN. As one of the whois FAQs explains:
“Why don't you stop showing my address/name/email address on your website?
We have little control over what information is shown in our whois output as it comes directly from your domain name registrar's whois servers. If you want your details removing or changing, you should contact your registrar.”
Not surprisingly, the existence of such a database raises all sorts of data protection and privacy issues – for example, abuse by spammers. But intellectual property firms, as well police and government agencies, maintain that it’s necessary for internet surveillance in order to curb ‘cyber-crimes’.
After three months of intense debate over the issue, an ICANN working group has failed to arrive at any concrete decision. As Milton Mueller – professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies – says on the Internet Governance Project’s blog:
“Despite flirting with the kind of compromises and reforms that might actually reconcile privacy rights with identification needs, in the final weeks of the process trust and agreement among the parties broke down completely”
Inevitably, unlimited public access to such data is open to abuse by both crooks and the authorities. A consensual process between data protectionists and governments would help to ensure that a balance is struck. But ultimately I feel it is the provision of information by domain registrars that needs to be controlled locally – on a case-by-case basis – rather than by ICANN’s global decrees.