Piracy Concerns May Soon Kill Domain Name Privacy

Several organizations including domain name registrar Namecheap are asking the public to protest a new ICANN proposal that will ban private domain name registrations. The proposal was heavily lobbied for by various copyright holder groups, who want to make it easier to expose pirate site operators.

whoisguardIn recent months copyright holders have been increasingly pushing for changes in the domain name industry.

Groups such as the MPAA and RIAA, for example, want registrars to suspend domain names of clearly infringing websites.

While this is unlikely to happen on a broad scale in the near future, a new ICANN proposal may put an end to private domain name registrations for some websites.

A new proposal (pdf) will no longer allow ‘commercial’ sites, which could include all domain names that run advertisements, to hide their personal details through so-called WHOIS protections services.

This change is backed by copyright holder groups including the MPAA, who previously argued that it will help them to hold the operators of illegal sites responsible.

“Without accurate WHOIS data, there can be no accountability, and without accountability it can be difficult to investigate and remedy issues when individuals or organizations use the Internet in illegal or inappropriate ways,” MPAA’s Alex Deacon said recently.

“Ensuring this data is accurate is important not only to the MPAA and our members, but also to everyone who uses the Internet every day.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the proposal has ignited protests from privacy advocates and key players in the domain name industry.

Digital rights group EFF points out that copyright holders can already expose the operators of alleged infringers quite easily by obtaining a DMCA subpoena. This is something the RIAA has done already on a few occasions.

EFF further warns that the new rules will expose the personal details of many people who have done nothing wrong, but may have good reasons not to have their address listed publicly.

“The limited value of this change is manifestly outweighed by the risks to website owners who will suffer a higher risk of harassment, intimidation and identity theft,” EFF’s Mitch Stoltz writes.

Namecheap, one of the largest domain registrars, also jumped in and sent a mass-mailing to all their customers urging them to tell ICANN not to adopt the new proposal.

“No WHOIS privacy provider wants their service to be used to conceal illegal activity, and the vast majority of domain owners are not criminals. Using a WHOIS privacy service is no more suspicious than having an unlisted phone number,” Namecheap CEO Richard Kirkendall notes

“These new proposed rules would wreak havoc on our right to privacy online. ICANN is moving quickly, so we should too – contact them today and tell them to respect our privacy,” he adds.

ICANN is currently accepting comments from the public and Namecheap is encouraging its customers to use the Respect Our Privacy campaign site to protest the proposed changes.

Of course, Namecheap has more to worry about than the privacy of its users alone. The company itself operates the Whoisguard service and earns a lot of revenue through these private registrations.

Thus far most of the responses received by ICANN have come in through the special campaign site, arguing against the proposal. The commenting period closes in two weeks followed by an official report. After that, the ICANN board will still have to vote on whether or not the changes will be implemented.

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