Whois may become a Whowas

US domain registrar Go Daddy Software has announced the launch of a sister company that will offer website operators who crave anonymity an alternative to fictionalising their Whois information.

The Whois directory might be riddled with falsified contact information provided by irresponsible domain name owners who prefer to remain unreachable, but at least the listing is still a useful tool for easily and quickly making contact with the vast majority of website operators.

That might change soon, and not for the better.

Upstart domain registrar Go Daddy Software has announced the launch of a sister company called Domains by Proxy that will offer website operators who crave anonymity an alternative to fictionalising their Whois information. Go Daddy head Bob Parsons says he believes that 10% of his company's one million-plus domain name registrants eventually will choose the privacy service and that such services will quickly become commonplace across the industry.

Unfortunately, he might be right, especially because the organisation charged with policing Whois compliance -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- apparently sees no problem with the directory evolving from a relatively reliable source of ready contact information into a morass of privacy shields. An ICANN spokeswoman says the organisation sees no problem with Domains by Proxy at first blush, but will be examining the details more closely.

Here's how Domains by Proxy works:

A customer wishing to register a domain name without making public his personal contact information - or lying about same - pays Domains by Proxy a $US6 yearly fee over and above the $US8.95 that Go Daddy normally charges to register a name.

Domains by Proxy becomes the legal owner of the customer's domain name and provides its own contact information to Whois, thus shielding the customer from having to do so. Domains by Proxy then conveys to the customer all the rights associated with ownership, including the right to sell, transfer, renew or cancel the name.

The service includes email notification options that let a Domains by Proxy customer receive messages from outsiders who want to contact the actual site operator. However, one of the options is to receive no such email.

Parsons says the service will protect his customers and their families from stalkers, child molesters, identity thieves and spammers. He insists his company will bend over backward to assist law enforcement should anyone be tempted to use this privacy protection for nefarious purposes -- and they will certainly be tempted. He also promises that if spammers try to hide behind the service, "We'll be on them like ticks on a dog."

Let's presume he's sincere. This type of service still spells big trouble for the usefulness of Whois. Instead of quickly finding contact information for a domain name owner with whom you have an issue and contacting that person directly, you'll be forced to jump through hoops with no promise of actually finding the person.

In general, it's tough to argue against privacy protection. (The $US2 and change Verizon charges me each month for the privilege of keeping my telephone number unlisted might be the best money I spend.)

However, there are -- or at least should be -- obligations associated with staking out a little slice of the internet for yourself, and the first one ought to be making yourself known and readily available for legitimate inquiries about your site. That's not asking too much.

As for ICANN, its apparent acceptance of these proxy services begs the question of why the organisation recently came down so forcefully on VeriSign for its alleged shoddiness in maintaining its Whois records.

There might be a difference between fictitious contact information and the proxies, but that difference will seem insignificant if large swaths of Whois become populated by a handful of phone numbers from a handful of proxy service providers.

McNamara is a Network World US columnist. Comments of any kind, should be sent to buzz@nww.com.

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