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Internet privacy 'sacrificed' by Icann

10 October 06 09:57 GMT

Internet law professor Michael Geist argues that the internet oversight body has sacrificed the issue of privacy for a shot at independence.

"For the past five years, privacy has lingered as one of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (Icann) most contentious policy issues.

Information on tens of millions of domain name registrants is contained in the "WHOIS database", which is readily available to anyone with internet access.

Pre-dating Icann, the database identifies the name, address and other personal information of domain name registrants.

Privacy groups, including European data protection commissioners, have expressed misgivings about the mandatory collection and disclosure of this personal information.

They note that domain name registrants are required to provide accurate registration information (failure to do so may result in a loss of the domain name), and that the open disclosure of this personal data may create a chilling effect on the registration of controversial websites where the registrant desires to remain anonymous.

For example, registrants in oppressive political regimes may need to hide their identity to avoid criminal prosecution; while corporate whistleblowers in North America could lose their jobs if their identities were discovered.

WHOIS reforms

After years of debate, the Icann community recently took baby-steps towards eliminating the mandatory disclosure of personal information within the WHOIS database.

The US government strenuously objected to the reforms, arguing that law enforcement and intellectual property interests relied on easy availability of such data.

Yet, with the changes, the data would still be readily available to law enforcement agencies, with the appropriate due process measures (such as court orders).

The issue is whether the data should be available without any oversight.

Given that a newly independent Icann might continue to pursue WHOIS reform, the US government included a specific provision on the issue within the Joint Project Agreement (JPA).

It mandates Icann to "continue to enforce existing policy relating to WHOIS, such existing policy requires that Icann implements measures to maintain timely, unrestricted and public access to accurate and complete WHOIS information, including registrant, technical, billing and administrative contact information."

No confidence

The implications of this clause seem clear - the US government has undone five years of policy work that the internet community has undertaken by requiring Icann to enforce current WHOIS policies.

As discontent over the WHOIS issue mounted late last week, Icann CEO Paul Twomey offered a strained interpretation of the clause, suggesting that he did not believe that it restricted future reforms.

A more realistic take is that Icann and the US government have once again undermined the confidence of the internet community and have provided a clear signal that the government is still reluctant to transfer its oversight authority.

In its zeal to obtain independence, it would appear that Icann has bartered the privacy of millions of domain name registrants around the world.


Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

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