Privacy advocates are sounding the alarm over a potential policy change that would prevent some people from registering website addresses without revealing their personal information.
ICANN, the regulatory body that oversees domain names, has asked for public comment on whether it should prohibit the private registration of domains which are "associated with commercial activities and which are used for online financial transactions."
Domain registration companies, privacy advocates and anti-harassment advocates have decried the proposed changes for putting internet users at risk. On the opposite side of the issue, companies like LegitScript and MarkMonitor have argued that the change is necessary to protect consumers from unscrupulous businesses.
According to ICANN's rules, any domain registered on the Web needs a publicly-accessible Whois record that lists several contacts along with their physical address, email address and phone number. But privacy services exist that allow users to register a domain and use the privacy provider's contact information so that they don't have to reveal their own personal details.
Those providers will usually provide a relay service that lets people contact domain registrants if necessary, and will often turn over a registrant's contact information in response to a court order. But they still provide a degree of privacy for domain registrants.
According to anti-harassment advocate Randi Harper, Whois privacy services are key to protecting people from abuse online. Harper, the CEO of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, said it was important for users to be able to protect their Whois data because it is the "lowest barrier to entry for finding personal information on a target of harassment."
"Even someone who isn't technically inclined is able to go to a website, put in a domain name, and get the address of the person who owns it," she said in an email. "In many cases, this is the home address of an individual. Once this personal data is made public, targets of harassment can receive phone calls, mail, and often times threats of physical harm."
Harper's organization has joined other advocacy organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future, along with domain registrars like GoDaddy, Namecheap, eNom and Tucows in the fight against the changes.
Elisa Cooper, MarkMonitor's vice president of product marketing, said in an emailed statement that the push to restrict anonymized registrations was designed to protect online consumers from shady businesses.
"Consumers on the Internet should be able to know who they are doing business with," she said. "By allowing anonymized domain name registrations for sites that are transacting business online, we are creating a safe haven for criminal behavior to flourish."
ICANN's own working group is divided on the issue, which is why it's soliciting public comments.
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