ICANN Debates WHOIS Database

Gretchen Gallen
LUXEMBOURG – A report presented at ICANN’s four-day meeting in Luxembourg addressed the longstanding issue of privacy on the WHOIS database, a topic of debate that has dogged ICANN since 1999 and resulted in the formation of several task forces to study the issue and search for solutions.

ICANN ombudsman Frank Fowlie presented a report during ICANN's July 11-15 meeting in Luxembourg City, revealing that a large portion of complaints received by ICANN are directly related to grievances over the WHOIS database, which is maintained by more than 400 domain name registrars and in some cases provides detailed and publicly accessible information on domain registrants.

However, over the years and along with the rapid proliferation of domain name registrations, the standard WHOIS domain search has lost much of its accuracy and credibility as more and more registrars maintain their own private databases to keep the information safe from competing registrars.

Questions raised at the summit last week questioned whether ICANN should continue to govern the database, or if the registrars themselves should take charge.

"It's been an excruciatingly slow process, and I think it will continue to be so," Steven Metalitz, a member of the WHOIS task force, said. "ICANN is not a venue where quick decisions are possible.”

According to Fowlie, businesses and law enforcement want the information public so they can pursue trademark infringers, spammers, phishers and others who exploit the Internet for unlawful purposes.

But registrants have argued against having their personal or business information made available to outsiders, saying they want to protect themselves.

The Federal Trade Commission also has been pushing the issue of a WHOIS overhaul, claiming that the database is filled with “inaccuracies” and has significantly hindered its ability to fight consumer fraud on the Internet.

Some solutions offered include having the registrar named as the owner of the website instead of the actual owner. But ICANN has waffled over whether this violates ICANN’s governing power. A recently proposed solution is to make technical contact information public and the rest private and retrievable through the registrant’s registrar. And while that decision appeases one side of the argument, law enforcement and the FTC argue that accessing information through registrars could cause significant delays in obtaining domain-owner information.

Over the past years, ICANN has grappled with the WHOIS issue by forming three task forces in 2003 to study how to improve the database system while also addressing privacy worries. Those three task forces have since merged into one.