FTC Demands Continued Access to WhoIs

Michael Hayes
WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission has requested continued open access to the WhoIs database, saying that contact and identity information of website operators aids the consumer protection agency’s efforts in combating spyware and policing fraud online.

Addressing ICANN, which oversees WhoIs, at the organization’s meeting in Morocco FTC commissioner John Leibowitz said that access to the database would be “critical to the agency’s consumer protection laws.”

Leibowitz’s comment came in response to a recent ICANN recommendation to restrict government access to the database for “technical purposes” only.

In early April, WhoIs voted 18-9 to restrict website ownership listings, which must be made publicly available, only to those responsible for technical configuration problems. That vote, and the ICANN recommendation that followed it, would mean that the identity of the party responsible for the content of the website, the owner, need not be made publicly available.

While privacy advocates lauded that move, corporations fighting fraud online, as well as the FTC, have objected.

"If ICANN restricts the use of WhoIs data to technical purposes only, it will greatly impair the FTC's ability to identify Internet malefactors quickly and ultimately stop perpetrators of fraud, spam and spyware from infecting consumers' computers,” Leibowitz said.

The FTC commissioner went on to cite his agency’s access to the WhoIs data as a key tool in its investigations, saying that unfettered access helped federal agents stop seven companies from sending sexually graphic emails without the legally required warning labels.

Despite chiding ICANN for its recommendation to restrict access to WhoIs information, Leibowitz did commend the organization for taking the lead on improving the accuracy of WhoIs data.

The feud comes in the wake of a broader struggle between the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Commerce, and ICANN. Many ICANN watchers believe that the opening salvo in the war to determine the ultimate control of the Internet was fired when ICANN refused to green light .XXX, the proposed top-level domain that would have created a designated location for adult content online.