Changes to Domain Name Rules Place User Privacy in Jeopardy
TG Storytime is a free community website for transgender authors, operated by Joe Six-Pack, himself a transgender author and publisher. If you look up the registration details of Joe's domain tgstorytime.com using the WHOIS application, you get this result:
Registrant Name: Registration Private
Registrant Organization: Domains By Proxy, LLC
Registrant Street: DomainsByProxy.com
Registrant Street: 14747 N Northsight Blvd Suite 111, PMB 309
Registrant City: Scottsdale
Registrant State/Province: Arizona
Registrant Postal Code: 85260
Registrant Country: United States
Registrant Phone: +1.4806242599
Of course, these aren't Joe's actual contact details, since there are many reasons why Joe may not want those private details to be made freely available. Instead, Joe uses 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 his actual details private. If anyone really needs to know Joe's physical address or telephone number, they can apply for a court order or subpoena requiring his 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 TG Storytime used for commercial purposes? Well, Joe currently covers the site's expenses, but also notes that “ads and donations may be used in the future to cover costs”, and sites that run ads have been judged as commercial in domain name disputes. If a similar broad definition is adopted by ICANN, Joe might well be forced to give up his privacy if he begins to run ads on his site.
Joe is 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 firstname.lastname@example.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, both of which EFF supports.