ICANN considers anonymous registration of domain names

The Internet's governing body has launched a survey to assess whether it really is necessary to maintain a database of registrants' personal details

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is to conduct a review of the Whois database for domain name registrants, and assess the feasibility of allowing individuals and companies to register domain names anonymously in the future.

An online survey invites people to comment on the existing practice of publishing the personal details of registrants to the public, which is often used for commercial purposes. The comment period is open until 14 August, and will question current rules that prevent people from signing up for domain names anonymously.

In its preamble to the survey ICANN states, "the questions are designed to focus on the purpose, use, and accuracy of the Whois service to establish the appropriate balance between competing interests."

The Whois service currently contains registrants' domain name registration information, which is gathered from the databases of either ICANN-accredited registrars or at the registry of the appropriate country code. The Whois database is a publicly searchable resource and is used to determine the identity of domain name registrants and the technical and administrative contacts associated with the domain name or Internet Protocol (IP) block.

The disclosure of data about individuals' registrations has frequently raised privacy concerns, as personal information is often sold or trawled through for commercial purposes. But Nominet, the registry for .uk domain names, follows a more stringent approach towards the disclosure of registrants' contact information, and only publishes the name of domain name owners.

"If making a change to the way that we operate was deemed to be in the interest of the whole Internet community, we would [change] the information that we publish," said Eleanor Bradley, customer support manager for Nominet. "We have a lot more information on our side to validate who a registrant is, and we retain the right to release the information to named parties if necessary."

It is estimated that well over 70 percent of domain names are registered by businesses or organisations. ICANN believes that the Whois database provides a crucial resource for network administrators who may need to contact other network system operators in resolving network problems or to determine the perpetrators of spam or hacking attempts.

Nominet agrees that it is in the interest of both parties to know with whom they are entering into a contract, so that any amendment to a domain name will always affect the right party. The registration of pseudonyms is also not allowed, but registrants wishing to conceal their identity can buy a domain name under a third-party name, such as that of their solicitor.

The ICANN survey will last two weeks, after which time participants will be emailed with a copy of the responses received. ICANN will then enter a discussion period to review the findings of the study.

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