My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses this week on the new CIRA whois policy that is scheduled to take effect on June 10, 2008. 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.