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Privacy dispute could cramp website registry

October 30, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — Tech industry lawyer Mark Bohannon frequently taps a group of searchable databases called Whois to figure out who may be behind a website that distributes pirated software or tricks visitors into revealing passwords.

Like a "411" for the Internet, Whois contains information such as the names and telephone numbers of the owners of millions of Internet addresses. Bohannon and his staff at the Software and Information Industry Assn. rely on the free databases daily in their efforts to combat theft and fraud.

Law-enforcement officials, trademark lawyers and journalists, as well as spammers, also use it regularly.

Bohannon, the trade group's general counsel, called the Whois database "the best, most well-recognized tool that we have to be able to track down who in fact you are doing business with," adding that alternatives such as issuing subpoenas to service providers take time and money.

Nonetheless, some privacy advocates are proposing scrapping the system entirely because they can't agree with the people who use the system on how to give domain name owners more options when they register -- such as designating third-party agents. Privacy advocates say individuals shouldn't have to reveal personal information simply to have a website.

The so-called sunset proposal is expected to come up Wednesday before a committee of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a key Internet oversight agency.

It will have a tough time winning approval -- and could create chaos. But the fact that abandoning Whois is on the table underscores frustrations among privacy advocates that ICANN appears on the verge of launching new studies and deferring a decision yet again after some six years of debate.

Ross Rader, a member of ICANN's generic names council and the sunset proposal's chief sponsor, said many negotiators were stalling because they preferred the status quo, which gives them the access to Whois they desire.

An executive with domain registration company Tucows Inc., Rader said he was just trying to break the deadlock and didn't necessarily want the databases to disappear.

"What removing the status quo will do is force all of the actors to come together without the benefit of a status quo to fall back on and say, 'We are now all screwed. What will we do?' " Rader said. "It will lead to better good-faith negotiations."

Think of it as saving the system by breaking it first.

Marilyn Cade, a former AT&T executive who has been active on Whois advocacy, called the sunset proposal an "overreaction that somehow got crystallized into an option. Everyone who has done the long hours of hard work to examine policy options thinks that they have a monopoly on what is best, but the facts are not yet there."

Cade is part of the camp that prefers further studies on the extent of any Whois abuse and the degree to which individuals are actually registering names for personal use -- which could justify more privacy -- rather than for businesses, nonprofit endeavors or domain name speculation.

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