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Proposed Domain Name Rule Threatens Website Owner Anonymity

A proposal to establish stricter identity requirements may strip website owners of the ability to mask their personal information.

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To rid the internet of piracy, entertainment companies are willing to greatly reduce privacy, at least where website registration is concerned.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the group that oversees allocation of the internet's domain names, is considering a plan that would allow businesses like Time Warner and Walt Disney to more easily pursue copyright cases against infringing websites. The proposal would accomplish this by limiting the use of proxy registration, services that allow bloggers and site owners to keep their personal information private. ICANN rules currently require all domains to list contact information, but individuals are permitted to use a proxy to maintain their privacy. The proposed rule would block any commercial website from using such a service.

Where the entertainment industry views proxy registration as a pirate's tool for obfuscation, privacy advocates see identity concealment as a feature that can enable free speech and freedom from harassment.

Jeremy Malcolm, a senior global policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, strongly opposes the proposal to limit proxy services. Along with his colleague Mitch Stoltz, an EFF staff attorney, he's penned a critique of the proposal that he views as an entertainment industry power grab. Whatever benefit the proposed rule might offer music and movie companies, Malcolm and Stoltz argue, it would come at the unacceptable cost of exposing intimate details of women, LGBT, political dissidents, and other protected classes of citizens. "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," they wrote.

In a phone interview, Stoltz told BuzzFeed News that industry players already have ways to seek the true identity of a website owner — primarily through a court order. Instead of making a legitimate case to a judge explaining why a host should be compelled to turn over someone's address, Stoltz said the proposed rule would make it "temptingly easy to unmask an anonymous speaker whom you want to criticize or harass or shout down." For Stoltz, stripping a website owner of their privacy is something best done under court supervision.

One crucial aspect of the proposed rule change that an ICANN working group has been tasked with sorting out is what exactly constitutes a commercial website. Would commercial domains encompass all sites that merely run advertisements, as Stoltz and Malcolm fear? Or would the definition narrow the field to sites whose primary function is transactional? The ICANN working group has asked the public to specifically address such questions in an open comment period ending July 7.

Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of Automattic, the company behind the website platform WordPress, told BuzzFeed News, "We think it would be a dangerous blow to our user's privacy to force everyone with a domain to have their personal contact details public."

A spokesperson for Automattic also clarified that advertisements may run on sites using Wordpress, the free blog platform. If ICANN decides to use a broad definition for commercial websites, then all Wordpress customers who use the free version of their platform--a multitude of activists, bloggers, artists, academics, and students — may be prohibited from shielding their identities from the world. (While the spokesperson couldn't provide data on how many people use the free version of Wordpress, free and paid Wordpress sites account for 24% of the entire web.)

Last month, during a congressional hearing on intellectual property, an attorney for the Coalition for Online Accountability, one of the main proponents of the rule change, 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." Steven Metalitz, the attorney for COA, which represents eight major entertainment industry groups including the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, told a committee of the House of Representatives, "These registrations need to be brought into the sunlight."

According to Metalitz and the industries for which he speaks, not only would limiting proxy registration help ensure copyright and trademark claims, it would also protect consumers from fraudulent businesses. With tighter registration, scam artists would be easier to track down. And having ready access to a name and address would also aid officers of the law.

Neither Metalitz nor the COA responded to requests for comment.

ICANN's forum on the proposal includes thousands of public comments. Many individuals expressed alarm at the prospect of having to offer up their home address and other sensitive information. One self-described single woman business owner said, in a comment that was typical of the forum, "My intention is not to operate above the law, but to enjoy one of the few protections offered."

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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