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whois and private registration

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During the archaic times (measured in Internet years) there was but one registrar, Internic. If you wanted to register a domain name, you would browse to the Internic's site, plug in the domain name and some contact info, and the domain was yours, free of charge. I still remember those days, and sure wish I had the foresight to register a few good domain names to sell for a couple millions only a few years later. Times have changed. Internic became Network Solutions (and then snapped up by Verisign), ICANN was formed to assume the oversight of registrars and IP address registrations, and competition prompted the creation of numerous domain name registrars on the Internet.

Without competition, registering a domain name might have been very costly today. No wonder Network Solutions never liked having its monopoly status taken away. While the price of a domain name isn't free any longer, the cost of registering one is trivial, in the order of $6-$7 per year with the inexpensive registrars.

Many registrars claim that they barely break even selling domain names alone. That's why many of them offer ancillary services to their customers. From Web hosting, to DNS management, to Web design services, people have to navigate a maze of offers before they can make a simple domain purchase.

One of these fee-based services is private whois registration. If you own a domain name, surely you receive periodic emails reminding you to keep your whois information up-to-date. Whois is a database of contact information for the domain owners and it’s a treasure trove for spammers. According to ICANN rules, registrars must make best effort to have their respective whois databases updated with accurate information. The contact information generally consists of a domain owner's name, address, email, phone and fax numbers. The database can be queried using the whois protocol. You generally supply a domain name, and the query returns the contact information for that particular domain. Just about all registrars also offer web-based whois search, which, behind the scenes, runs a whois query and returns the result on a web page.

Spammers quickly discovered that they can unleash bots on whois registries and harvest millions of email addresses to spam to. In order to thwart them, registrars have implemented technologies to sniff out and block robots (generally marked by queries arriving at rapid succession), distinguish between human and robot activity (via CAPTCHAs), and finally offering private whois registrations.

For a fee, the registrar substitutes its own contact information for that of the actual domain owner, in effect protecting the privacy of the domain owner. Some could charge as much as $10 per year for this service alone. To me, that's a racket and it hurts the people who can least afford it. Think about it, most companies would never opt for a service like that. Why would they? It's free publicity for their company and it's another avenue for the public to find their contact information. Private citizens, however, may not want their home addresses and phone numbers revealed, but they have to pay to keep that information private. It doesn't make sense, except that the registrars crunched the numbers and figured out they can make more money this way. If most people were interested in publicizing their private data, you can bet that the registrars would have masked out that information, and then would have charged for keeping it open.

I am all in favor of requiring domain owners to keep their whois information up-to-date, but registrars should not use that as a tool to scare people into paying for private registrations. That choice should be left to the domain owners and it should be free of charge either way.

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