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Activists Say Piracy Fears Threaten Domain Name Privacy

"It’s kind of like being doxxed by ICANN.”

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A proposed rule requiring virtually all website owners to list their names and addresses is supposed to curb piracy, but a growing chorus of critics says it will do more to aid and abet online harassment.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the group that oversees allocation of the internet's domain names, is considering a proposal that would force site owners to reveal their personal information. Such a rule already exists, but bloggers and site owners can use proxy registration to shield their personal information. The proposed rule would limit the use of these proxy services, prohibiting all commercial websites from using them — even those run by proprietors who have very good reason for wanting to mask their identities online.

While music and movie companies believe stricter domain registration will help deter piracy, others see an invitation for harassment and the chilling of free speech -- in other words, a really terrible idea.

"We strongly oppose the Working Group's proposal, which will physically endanger many domain owners and disproportionately impact those who come from marginalized communities," reads a letter sent to ICANN on Tuesday, signed by a broad coalition of women's rights and privacy advocates that includes everyone from privacy advocate Nico Sell and Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman to actress Ashley Judd, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, and musician Amanda Palmer. "If implemented, the current proposal will chill speech — especially speech from people who lack access to lavish legal resources. It will be a generous gift both to harassers and to oppressive regimes."

"I don't want my personal information out there, and I don't think other women, or really anybody who doesn't want it out there, should have to put it out there," Lynn Harris, vice president for communications at Breakthrough and a letter signatory, told BuzzFeed News. "[This is] kind of like being doxxed by ICANN. I know the intent is not malicious, but a lot of people are sadly forced to work hard to keep their personal information private."

The entertainment groups that back the proposal to change the privacy of WHOIS, the database where domain name contact information is stored and accessed, have argued that their intellectual property is threatened by privacy features that are too forgiving. They view proxy services as tools easily abused by criminals who hide behind layers of anonymity in the service of piracy.

But Alison Macrina, the director of the Library Freedom Project, believes this argument reframes the issue in a dishonest way. "The idea that individuals have a duty to transparency is just absurd," she told BuzzFeed News. "Individuals have a right to privacy. Governments and corporations have to be transparent." For Macrina, the risk this rule poses to women, people of color, and the LGBT community far outweighs any benefit to the entertainment industry.

"Putting home addresses in WHOIS was always a mistake. It's become an unsustainable mistake," Melissa Elliott, an application security researcher, told BuzzFeed News. Elliot experienced firsthand the misfortune that can befall someone whose personal information is made publicly available in WHOIS. As a young computer science student, Elliot's home address was automatically posted after she registered a new domain. "It was not long before I was getting verbally abusive phone calls and assorted objects in the mail from these boys to prove that they knew where I lived, even as they threatened that they wanted me out of the industry and 'joked' about sexually abusing me," she said. Elliott believes the recent uptick in swatting — calling in a false emergency that draws an armed response from police to someone else's home — is just the latest example of online harassment made possible through exposed personal information.

According to an initial May report by ICANN, the working group considering the proposal hasn't formed a consensus on whether proxy services for commercial websites should be banned. "While most [working group] members did not believe such a prohibition is necessary or practical, some members believed that registrants of such domain names should not be able to use or continue using [proxy services]."

ICANN's Cyrus Namazi, vice president for domain name services and industry, told BuzzFeed News that "the debate will continue until the report is final, and we encourage any and all to voice their opinion. This type of discourse is a critical element of the multi-stakeholder model."

Steven Metalitz, an attorney for the Coalition for Online Accountability, a group that represents the entertainment industry, told BuzzFeed News that the COA is "basically supportive" of the initial ICANN report. Metalitz said the COA also supports a statement in the report indicating that just because a website engages in commercial activity doesn't mean it should be prevented from using proxy services.

Earlier this year, during a congressional hearing on intellectual property, Metalitz elaborated on the industry's case. He told lawmakers that tens of millions of domain owners "lurk in the shadows … through a completely unregulated proxy registration system that is the antithesis of transparency." He continued: "While there is a legitimate role for proxy registrations in limited circumstances, the current system is manipulated to make it impossible to identify or contact those responsible for abusive domain name registrations."

Online Abuse Prevention Initiative founder Randi Harper, who helped co-write the letter to ICANN, characterized the entertainment industry's claims as "bullshit." Said Harper, "If there is actually a problem with piracy and people want to go out and get the address of somebody who owns the site, you can still do that, it just requires a subpoena, which actually isn't that difficult to get."

Harper, like many other co-signatories of the letter, has been singled out for criticizing sexual and online harassment. "It wasn't just me," said Zoe Quinn, co-founder of Crash Override Network, and a central target of GamerGate, a campaign of sustained harassment directed at female video game developers and critics. "The effect of having my personal information circulated has been beyond drastic," Quinn told BuzzFeed News, adding that she's had to leave her home to avoid being swatted.

Quinn believes the issue of copyright infringement is being blown out of proportion, and pales in comparison to the real-life consequences of stalking and harassment. Rather than limit the use of proxy services, Quinn thinks they should be greatly expanded and offered for free. "We need to start thinking about online privacy outside of things like SOPA and keeping governments away," she said. "If we had a fraction of the amount of resources, attention, and care paid to issues of online harassment that we do copyright infringement, the web would be a completely different place."

Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has joined the coalition opposing the ICANN rule change. And, more broadly, she is leading efforts in Congress to steer law enforcement priorities toward protecting individuals from online harassment.

"The proposal ICANN is considering would mean that a domestic violence worker, or a reproductive rights advocate, or someone fighting for transgender rights could be forced to disclose the personal addresses if they register their domain name," Clark told BuzzFeed News. "I've met a lot of women who are speaking up against violence, intolerance and bullying, but the price they pay includes non-stop threats of sexual assault, physical harm and invasion of their homes. It's only common sense that we protect their privacy."

July 7 marks the last day of the ICANN working group's public comment period. Nadia Kayyali, an activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and another co-signatory of the letter, hopes the flood of responses will force the organization to take these criticisms seriously. "I don't know if ICANN is used to getting so much scrutiny over the kind of work that they're doing," she said. "I'm really curious to see how they respond."

Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.

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