Privacy advocates question Web rules

Associated Press

MARINA DEL REY, Calif. — As more individuals build their own Web sites, privacy advocates are questioning requirements that site owners disclose their personal contact information.

Names, e-mail addresses, postal addresses and telephone numbers for more than 24 million domain names are stored in databases collectively called Whois. The information is available to anyone with an Internet connection.

It’s like a global phone directory — without the option for an unlisted number — and can be easily accessed through servers at companies that register domain names.

"Sacrificing your privacy should not be a condition of access to the domain space," said Alan Davidson, staff counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Most people may not care and would list their contact information anyway, just like most telephone customers now list their numbers.

But Davidson said Internet users ought to have a choice — for instance, they may want to stay anonymous if they are human rights advocates or dissidents fearful of repercussions from oppressive governments.

Ellen Rony, author of the Domain Name Handbook, said she knew of someone who had been stalked based on information from the databases.

On the other hand, she said, the tool proves helpful for researchers to gauge the origins and veracity of Web sites, and the stalking incident appears an aberration.

"I can see both sides," she said. "Historically, Whois is always public."

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the master record keeper of Web addresses and the domain registration companies, requires disclosure of contact information for holders of .com, .net and .org names.

Andrew McLaughlin, the organization’s chief policy officer, said it may have to revisit Whois policies next year, but it is not on the agenda for its annual meeting this week.

Part of the drive comes from the European Union, which passed a law prohibiting the transfer of data to the United States and other non-EU countries that don’t meet EU standards for protecting personal information.

Back in the 1980s, when the Whois database was developed, Internet privacy wasn’t a big deal. The Internet was mostly a research tool for government and universities.

"We all knew each other," said Karl Auerbach, a longtime Internet user who was recently elected to ICANN.

But these days, Auerbach said, that same Whois database creates unwanted e-mail and unsolicited phone calls.

Davidson said times have changed, and the Internet must change as well.

"Now, you have regular people using it and there’s a much greater need to protect privacy," he said.

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