ICANN Changes to Domain Rules Could Put Your Privacy in Jeopardy

GeekyGarden.com is my personal website. If you look up the registration details of my domain using the WHOIS application, you get this result:

Registrant Name: WHOIS AGENT
Registrant Organization: WHOIS PRIVACY PROTECTION SERVICE, INC.
Registrant Street: PO BOX 639
Registrant Street: C/O GEEKYGARDEN.COM
Registrant City: KIRKLAND
Registrant State/Province: WA
Registrant Postal Code: 98083
Registrant Country: US
Registrant Phone: +1.4252740657

Of course, these aren’t my actual contact details, since there are many reasons why I may not want those private details to be made freely available. Instead, I use a proxy registration service that fulfils the rules of ICANN (the global domain name authority) that contact information be available for all domains, while keeping my actual details private. If anyone really needs to know my physical address or telephone number, they can apply for a court order or subpoena requiring my privacy service to disclose them.

At least, that is how it works now. But under a proposal [PDF] currently being considered by ICANN, that may all change. It is proposed that domains used for commercial purposes might no longer be eligible to use proxy registration services. Is Geeky Garden Technologies used for commercial purposes? Yes.  However, what if I just placed ads on my site? Sites that run ads have been judged as commercial in domain name disputes. If a similar broad definition is adopted by ICANN, I might well be forced to give up my privacy.

I am far from alone. Thousands of responses have already been received by ICANN on this topic from others who are concerned about how the proposed policy change will affect them. Amongst them is a message from one user who wrote:

I’m a single female and live alone. I don’t want my personal address available to every pervert/troll/angered citizen that wants it after visiting my small website. Seemingly innocent topics, like vegan cooking, can spark outrage in certain individuals.

This change is being pushed by US entertainment companies, who told Congress in March that privacy for domain registration should be allowed only in “limited circumstances.” These and other companies want new tools to discover the identities of website owners whom they want to accuse of copyright and trademark infringement, preferably without a court order. They don’t need a new mechanism for this—subpoenas for discovery of the identities of website owners do regularly issue [PDF]. 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. 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. That’s why EFF opposes the new proposal to roll back anonymity.

If you agree, there are many ways in which you can let ICANN know your views. Between now and July 7th, you can send your comments by email to comments-ppsai-initial-05may15@icann.org. You can also support a petition that a coalition of companies and concerned individuals have established at savedomainprivacy.org, or use the phone and email tool of another coalition at respectourprivacy.com.

Parts of this post first appeared on Electronic Frontier Foundation and republished here under Creative Commons license.