New rule could prevent website owners from protecting their identity

Reuters/Chip East
A new rule over domain registration would prevent people from using a third party to sign up for a commercial website. People often use proxies to protect their contact information from the public, particularly when their work is controversial.

Under the new rules, people registering websites for non-personal purposes would have to disclose their name, address and phone number, all of which could be easily searchable by anyone. The plan has privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) opposed to the idea and alarmed that website owners could “suffer a higher risk of harassment, intimidation and identify theft.

The ability to speak anonymously protects people with unpopular or marginalized opinions, allowing them to speak and be heard without fear of harm. It also protects whistleblowers who expose crime, waste, and corruption,wrote EFF in a statement.

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At first blush, the change would seem to only affect commercial website registration. But a personally created website that offers a community benefit, but also features ads to help defray the costs of running the site, could be judged as commercial, and has been in past domain name disputes.

It is not clear yet if the organization that oversees the bureaucratic process of naming online domains, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), will include the broader definition of commercial in the new rules.

ICANN has put up the rules forpublic commentuntil July 7. To date, thousands of people have logged comments.

One individual named Brad urged ICANN to “respect internet users’ rights to privacy and due process … Private information should be kept private.”

Another, Sarah Brown, told ICANN that her websites allow her to earn a living full-time online, but she has been stalked, harassed, and had content from her site stolen. She uses a third-party proxy to prevent people from finding her sites, her home address and phone number.

I implore you to think through the consequences of removing our private WHOIS information. It serves as a buffer to protect us from the crazy people in this world,”wrote Brown. “We are living in unsafe times, where jealousy and greed overtake compassion and ethics. We are real people, with real lives, who can end up in real danger with our information in the wrong hands.”

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Carlton Samuels told ICANN that the new rules balanced rights and responsibilities, and “is a most important piece of work which…advances us closer to the goal of reforming certain domain name market practices and the environment.

Other writers were less helpful, with Professor Randal Vaughn writing simply, “I could care but I don't.”

ICANN said the rule change is being driven by discussions with law enforcement. EFF said it is also being driven by US entertainment companies and others who want new tools to discover the identities of website owners and then accuse them of copyright and trademark infringement, without a court order. US entertainment companies told Congress in March that privacy for domain registration should be allowed only in “limited circumstances”.