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New Canadian WHOIS Policy Balances Privacy With Public Access

Appeared in the Toronto Star on April 28, 2008 as Domain Name Policy Puts Us in Internet Vanguard

Earlier this month, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the agency that manages the dot-ca domain, celebrated its one millionth domain name registration.  While that represents an important milestone, a far more noteworthy development is that CIRA also quietly announced the implementation of a new "whois" policy that will better protect the privacy of hundreds of thousands of Canadians and serve as a model for domain name registries around the world.

The whois issue has attracted little public attention, yet it has been the subject of heated debate within the domain name community for many years.  It revolves around the whois database, a publicly accessible, searchable list of domain name registrant information (as in "who is" the registrant of a particular domain name).

When CIRA was first established, its whois policy permitted detailed disclosures about domain name registrants.  A typical whois entry included the domain name itself, the name of the registrant, and comprehensive contact information including postal address, phone and fax numbers, as well as email addresses.

The ready availability of such information proved useful to law enforcement, which often used whois information as part of cybercrime investigations.  Similarly, the pursuit of intellectual property infringement claims, such as domain name cybersquatting cases, relied upon access to whois information to commence legal challenges to domain name registrations.

Notwithstanding these uses, CIRA recognized that its policy of publicly disclosing personal information was generating significant discomfort among many registrants.  Citing privacy and spam concerns, many registrants preferred to conceal their identity from the public (though CIRA and the domain name registrar responsible for the registration would have access to the personal information).  Moreover, registrants of controversial domain names, such as domains used for websites devoted to public criticism or political advocacy, often wanted to shield their personal information for fear of public censure.

As privacy and data protection commissioners began to express reservations about the legality of requiring domain name registrants to disclosure their personal information, CIRA proposed a new policy in 2004.   After two major public consultations, mounting opposition from law enforcement about its loss to "unfettered" access to WHOIS data, and years of operational delays, CIRA last week began informing registrants that the new policy will take effect on June 10, 2008.

Under the new policy, CIRA will continue to collect the same contact information from registrants as under its current policy.  However, it will no longer require that such information be publicly available through its whois directory. In its place, CIRA will only require the public disclosure of limited technical information, though individual registrants may voluntarily "opt-in" to providing more personal information.

While the CIRA policy protects the privacy of individual registrants, corporate or organizational registrants will typically have their full information publicly disclosed. The policy recognizes that corporate information does not raise specific privacy concerns since corporate information does not constitute personally identifiable information.  Moreover, consumers may often want to access corporate whois information when judging the reliability of a website.  

In order to ensure that domain name registrants can still be contacted, CIRA has also established a unique message delivery system.  CIRA will allow the public to contact domain name registrants without access to their personal information by relaying the message through a web-based submission form.

The Canadian changes may be long overdue, however, they also instantly catapult the dot-ca into a global leadership position. With more than a million Canadian domain name registrations, the resolution of the whois issue ensures that the Canadian domain name space is set for continued growth as it now features a "privacy advantage" over other domains struggling to strike a similar compromise.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He served on the CIRA board from 2000 – 2006 and was active supporter of whois policy reforms. He can reached at or online at

One Comment

  1. Automatic?
    This is really nice to hear right now. I’m very glad it got pushed through. Even though it’s a bureaucracy, CIRA does seem to usually do the right thing, and that’s very relieving.

    Question: for already-registered domains will this policy take effect immediately or will we have to opt in to it (that is, manually opt-out of the optional opt-in)?
    (is there anyway I can get your blog to email me responses automatically? would it be possible for you to ping me at nguenther(at)gmail when you get around to this?)