New proposal would strike at web’s anonymity

Privacy advocates, public interest groups and even some celebrities are raising alarms about a proposal that could limit the ability of some website owners to disguise themselves.

The issue has caught fire over the past few months as an obscure organization that manages the Internet's domain name system was inundated with comments about a proposal that could bar commercial websites from using proxies to register their web addresses.

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Advocates argue anonymity is a key feature of free speech online, and removing that protection from people who create a website for commercial purposes could open vulnerable populations up to abuse. 

“Whatever the interest in unmasking an anonymous speaker, free speech interests demand the preservation of opportunities for anonymous speech,” Public Knowledge, the Open Technology Institute and the Center for Democracy and Technology argued in joint public comments.

Individuals and businesses are currently allowed to hide their identity, physical location and other personal contact information behind proxies in the public “WHOIS” directory that stores information online about the owners of every registered website domain name. 

Proxies can be used by anyone registering a domain, from a lawmaker gearing up for a presidential run who does not want to tip off the press, to a blogger posting unpopular views online. The proxy service comes standard with many of the major domain registrars like GoDaddy. 

The organization that coordinates the entire back end of the Internet, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), just finished seeking comment to see if it should cut off that proxy service for websites that conduct “financial transactions for commercial purpose.”

Critics of the potential change argue commercial activity will be impossible to define in a way that does not sweep up many other vulnerable populations that rely on anonymity.

“It will curb economic activity by adding untenable risk to using a website to promote one’s business or to collect donations, and may even add this risk to hosting ads,” according to comments by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and dozens of other groups. 

They cited instances where the public WHOIS database has been used in the past to generate abuse in a process known as “doxing” — when someone widely releases identifying information about an individual on a public forum. One result of that can come when an individual obtains another person's home address and calls 911 to report a phony emergency at the location, which in some cases has prompted a police department's SWAT team to descend on the house. 

Dozens of domestic violence groups signed the EFF letter. Others that signed on include tech groups like the Tor Project, Access, and Fight for the Future, as well as a diverse group of individuals such as actress Ashley Judd and journalist Laura Poitras.

Those groups argued that ICANN should reverse course and completely reform the concept of the WHOIS database to include privacy by “default to everyone.”

The more narrow question related to commercial websites was posed in a report from an ICANN working group that is coming up with a set of standards for these proxy services, since no accreditation process or best practices currently exist. 

Comments closed Tuesday and the staff report is due later this month. 

Luckily for critics, most inside the working group oppose a plan to treat commercial websites differently. But the issue is far from settled. 

“What is clear right now is there is not consensus in the community on this change. And unless there is consensus, it doesn't come for a recommendation to the community for approval,” ICANN President Fadi Chehadé told members of Congress this week. 

Advocates have been largely successful in mobilizing support against the originally low-profile proposal. More than 11,000 comments have been filed, in a process where 20 is usually a decent number. Many of the comments came from a form letter circulated by EFF, Fight For The Future, and Namecheap, a web hosting company. 

“I urge you to respect internet users' rights to privacy and due process. Everyone deserves the right to privacy. No one’s personal information should be revealed without a court order, regardless of whether the request comes from a private individual or law enforcement agency,” according to the form letter. 

Some entertainment and commercial interests have argued that banning proxy services for commercial websites could help crack down on the sale of counterfeit goods online or trademark infringement. 

Others point to the principle that customers have the right to know with whom they are doing business. Turner Broadcasting System, which owns CNN, argued in comments that proxies “are by their very nature intended to thwart attribution and accountability,” though the company did not take a position on the specific question. 

Amid the flurry of comments, even the Motion Picture Association of America said it opposes an outright ban on proxy registration for sites used for commercial activity. But it said ongoing discussions should continue about the distinctions. 
 
It said much of the current outcry has been spawned by "hype and misinformation."
 
The U.S. government, which holds symbolic oversight over ICANN, has not taken a position in the fight. However, Larry Strickling, the administrator for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, argues the proposal is “not as broad as some people feared.”

He said the debate should focus “on the actual issue.”

“It is a difficult one because we need to balance the interests who want to express themselves on the Internet against the similar interest people have in knowing who they do business with,” he said during testimony this week.