Website Owners Deserve the Right to Stay Anonymous

There’s a new threat to digital anonymity.

Anyone who’s ever purchased a domain name knows the drill: You’re required to provide a mailing address, email address, and phone number during the process. That information is made publicly available on Whois, the public database that stores contact information for all registrants. But not everybody wants their home address and phone number available for the entire world to query, and that’s why many people choose to pay a small annual fee, typically around $10, to keep their contact information safe from prying eyes.

But now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is considering a proposal that would roll back anonymity for commercial website owners by making them ineligible for proxy registration services. If approved, this means that any small business owner with a website—possibly even bloggers simply running ads or accepting donations—would be prohibited from protecting their own contact information.

Lots of website owners, particularly those who hold unpopular political opinions, may wish to remain anonymous. David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, recently discussed international legal protections for anonymity and encryption at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. While the report he presented didn’t mention Whois, he rightfully pointed to the link between privacy and freedom of expression and noted that digital anonymity, along with encryption, is necessary to protect these fundamental human rights.

Other website owners, particularly those who are members of marginalized groups, may choose to protect their home address for safety reasons. Close to three-quarters of adult Internet users have witnessed online harassment, and 40 percent have experienced it personally, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. The level of severity of this harassment varies, with swatting being among the most extreme. But even people who haven’t been personally targeted at all may choose to keep some information private as a preventive measure, as opposed to broadcasting their contact information to anyone who knows how to use the Whois look-up tool. (As a recent example, two Twitter users located Charleston church shooting suspect Dylann Roof’s website after doing a reverse WHOIS search for his name.)

Some site owners choose domain privacy for other reasons. Displaying one’s personal information can lead to identity theft, and having a personal email address posted in the Whois directory can lead to massive amounts of spam.

So what are the benefits? As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, supporters of the proposal include the Coalition for Online Accountability, a group of eight U.S. entertainment companies (including the Motion Picture Association of America, the Walt Disney Company, and Time Warner). Of course, the loss of anonymity would save money when pursuing legal action for trademark and copyright infringement, such as pirated content. It’s worth noting, however, that Whois data is already available with a subpoena or court order—so there is already a mechanism by which entertainment industry law firms (or anybody else) can reach website owners for purposes of litigation—and they do.

Another benefit? Perhaps people wishing to purchase dormant domains could contact the owners more easily. But this problem pales in comparison to individuals who may very well be putting themselves in harm’s way by making their contact information publicly available.

Proponents of these changes brush off the risk by pointing out that people who don’t want to blast out their home address could always use a work address or even a friend’s address. But someone who feels unsafe sharing a home address probably wouldn’t feel comfortable giving out a friend’s address. And someone who may be publishing content on their site that represents them and not their employer probably won’t want to share a work address with anyone who disagrees with their political viewpoint.

Another option that’s often thrown out is to get a post office box, but even this would publicize one’s city and state, and some website owners may not want to disclose even that, particularly if they’re living in a suburb or small town. Not to mention that getting a PO box is an inconvenience and an unnecessary expense.

ICANN has already received thousands of comments about this proposal, and you can submit yours until July 7 to this email address. After all, active citizens stepping up to successfully preserve the privacy of website owners would be a real Hollywood ending.