If you’ve ever registered a domain name through Fasthosts, it’s likely that you’ll have been asked if you want to activate domain privacy on your contact details. But what is domain privacy, and why do you need to give your contact details? To answer this we must first discuss ICANN and WHOIS.
ICANN (or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the organisation at the top of the domain name echelon. They are responsible for the management and maintenance of the global DNS (domain name system), namespaces and IP address spaces.
When a business or personal user registers a domain name, ICANN require that the customer provides the registrar or reseller (i.e. Fasthosts) with their contact details. One of the reasons to collect this data is to show who each domain name belongs to and this data is stored in a database known as ‘WHOIS’. The purpose of the WHOIS database is to, literally, allow anyone who is interested to find out ‘who’ ‘is’ the owner of any given domain name.
Although this information can be helpful, as it allows people to contact companies for business and networking opportunities, this data can also be abused. The data is stored on a public database that anyone can access, which means that, well... anyone can access it.
This has resulted in abuse and misuse of the WHOIS database, and led to spammers trawling the database for contact details of people to whom they can sell products and services and, in some cases, infect with malware.
A common misconception is that this data is obtained illegally, or by providers selling on the data to third-parties. However, this goes above domain providers and resellers like Fasthosts. The truth is that ICANN require the contact details of people registering gTLDs (global top level domains) to be available for anyone to see.
Spamming and domain privacy
To prevent abuse of customer data domain name providers, such as Fasthosts, offer domain privacy services. Providers are required, by ICANN, to obtain the contact details for each domain name but if the customer does not want their contact details available on the public database of domain names, they can activate domain privacy. This will replace their contact details with a proxy – usually the details of the provider.
Misuse aside, the WHOIS database is one of the stalwarts of the internet, and has been used by people doing good, honest work since the 1980s – from law enforcement to internet do-gooders.
One positive use of the WHOIS database is to trace illegal activities on the web. If a website is hosting something illegal, like infringed copyright or abuse, then the owner of the domain can be found through the contact details that were used to register it.
So, the WHOIS database is a valuable tool in preventing – and in some cases solving – crime. However, domain privacy is a valuable option for regular business users who don’t want their details appearing to spammers on public databases.
We understand and empathise with customers’ frustrations on the spam they receive. This problem goes above domain registrars, all the way up to ICANN. Domain providers just work within the policies and guidelines that ICANN specify. However, to improve these systems end users can choose to contact ICANN to voice their own concerns.
It should be noted that the functionality of domain privacy services and the WHOIS database could all change with the implementation of upcoming regulations.