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No. 34 for November 2004

Common Sense Journalism

A key tool for journalists, “whois” is endangered

By Doug Fisher

Who is behind that Internet site that sprang up to attack a candidate, promote the latest fad, distribute pornography or “phish” for identity information? Or maybe you need to find out who was running that news, community information or classified ad site that’s become your competitor.

Journalists who need that information quickly can turn to “whois,” the publicly accessible databases of domain name owners and contacts. A couple of clicks, and you usually can get the leads to begin investigating. But public access to reliable whois information is endangered, and journalism organizations have been notably absent from the debate.

  • Companies that register domain names are promoting added-fee services that “mask” registrants’ identities. Under contracts with the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers, those companies must collect accurate information about registrants, keep it current and make it public.
  • ICANN, a government-created, nonprofit corporation, has been criticized in Congress for lax oversight of a whois system riddled with inaccurate information. California-based ICANN is considering whether to put all or part of the information off-limits, to use “tiered access” with minimal data open to full public access, or to charge for access.
  • Privacy groups say public whois tramples the rights of those who want to publish anonymously and makes them targets of scammers, spammers and other Internet denizens. The group IP Justice calls whois “a virtual honey-pot for abuse” and says it violates laws in Canada and other countries where people can refuse to allow disclosure of the personal information when registering a Web site.
  • Some who have followed the debate think all public access could be lost.

“I think it is a viable threat,” said Alec French, counsel to Rep. Howard Berman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property. Berman and the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have pressed ICANN to provide tighter whois oversight. But, French said, “We really see no commitment on behalf of ICANN to take this issue seriously.”

Berman, for instance, has considered legislation to require ICANN to be more vigilant. But the only provision the House has found acceptable is one to add up to seven years to the prison sentence of someone convicted of using false whois information in another crime. The bill is pending in the Senate.

Congressional hearings have been held. Three ICANN task forces have examined the issue since 2003 and solicited comments. But journalism groups have been largely silent. Some media groups, such as Time Warner and Viacom, have spoken, primarily about tracking intellectual property violators. Ebay noted an open and accurate whois system helps it and its users ferret out fraud.

“There is strong, wide and deep support for open whois,” French said. “Journalists joining the group would be a worthwhile addition.”

Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association, had a typical reaction: “Your note was the first I realized that was under way.”

Deanna Sands, managing editor of the Omaha World Herald and president of the Associated Press Managing Editors: “I think you’ve hit it; it just fell under the radar.”

No one had brought it to the attention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Executive Director Scott Bosley said. But several days later, after consulting with other groups, he sent this message: “I believe we should weigh in. It's an important issue and we need to figure out how to best get a message through even after the comment period that has passed.”

Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said he had heard about some problems getting accurate information. But, he said, “I think the concern about it dropped off somewhat after 9/11 when everyone wanted to know who was running what Web site,” and it was felt that public interest was enough to keep things open.

Without whois information, said Charles Davis, freedom of information co-chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, “it could create lots and lots of trouble for journalists” who increasingly deal with stories spread by the Web and with the authenticity of Web sites. SPJ also has been silent on the issue.

The Wall Street Journal, citing information from Name Intelligence Inc., recently reported that nearly 5 percent of all new Web site registrants with common suffixes such as com, biz, net, org, info and us seek to shield their contact information. There have been 6.3 million new registrations overall so far this year, the Journal said.

Sheila Owens, spokeswoman for the Newspaper Association of America, said its head of legal affairs, Rene Milam, had started looking into the matter. “Her immediate response is that this is a bad idea from both a legal and newsgathering perspective,” Owens wrote in an e-mail. “She’s not sure if NAA will weigh in or not.”

Houston said it’s an issue “we should, from what you are telling me, probably bear down and get going on.”

The comment period closed in early July. ICANN spokesman Kieran Baker said no action is expected before the group’s annual meeting in December.

Hope remains that journalists can get heard. “I think when journalists are involved in writing a lot of stories about it, people tend to listen,” Houston said.

"It might just be that journalists don’t spend a whole lot of their lives in that (technical) community,” Davis said. “I think if we had more online presence, we’d be more alert to these things.”

"When you’ve got 12 (freedom of information) outrages a week,” he said, “things that are longer-term policy matters can get by.”

For more information:

The House bill now pending in the Senate is H.R. 3632.

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at dfisher@sc.edu or 803-777-3315.