On the Internet, Everybody Knows You’re a Dog

Just heard a story on Morning Edition reporting on a push by federal officials to force domain-name owners to identify themselves accurately in the WHOIS database, a database which is, of course, publicly available. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) moved earlier this month to make such public identification mandatory for .us domain names, not only making it illegal to provide false information but also eliminating private registrations; they now seem to be on the march to expand this policy across the net.

I’ve seen very little response to this thus far; the folks at GoDaddy.com have launched a petition site urging the NTIA to reestablish private registrations, arguing that placing personal registration information in a public database exposes innocent people to internet predators. In so doing, though, they make a curious distinction between “privacy” and “anonymity,” suggesting both on this petition site and in an article published on CircleID, that only bad guys really want to be anonymous, but that everyone should have the right to privacy.

I’m entirely with them on the privacy issue; my domain is publicly registered (only because I honestly didn’t know any better back when I registered it), and it creeps me out a bit that that information is so easily searchable. But is the distinction that GoDaddy is drawing between the privacy of private registrations and the anonymity of falsified public information really the key to this issue? Are there no other calls for anonymity than criminal activity? What about political dissent, whistle-blowing, even anonymous blogging? Is “privacy” rather than “anonymity” a sufficient protection for those who need it?

“The Internet is often a lawless place,” the GoDaddy folks claim. That frontier metaphor has been around since the public net’s earliest days, so it should come as no surprise that, as in the case of Deadwood, the government cocksuckers* are apparently rolling in to clean it up without any understanding of the situation. And as Cy Tolliver has it, “If we’re going to be surprised by that, boys — government being government — will we next be shocked by the rivers running and the trees casting fucking shade?”

*If you watch Deadwood, you won’t have blinked at that. If you don’t, you ought to.

One thought on “On the Internet, Everybody Knows You’re a Dog

  1. GoDaddy is only fighting for privacy because they make $9.95 a year providing it.

    Having accurate, traceable, whois information is valuable. It grants any user on the internet use tools like dig and whois to take the first step in discerning the legitimacy of their sources. It also stems from the origins of the internet as not just a “good, wholesome place”, but one of collaboration.

    Providing accurate information isn’t currently mandated by the government, but it is already mandated by ICANN and exists as a contractural clause on all domain registrations — if a registrar is alerted that someone has breached this clause, they revoke the domains automatically. However this shouldn’t just be viewed as a legal contract, but a social one. In exchange for the right to host speech, you give up the right to a certain type of anonymity.

    I’m a big advocate of internet privacy — every email I send or access is encrypted, as are all of my file transfers. I change multiple passkeys so often that my dreams have become swirls of letters numbers and symbols — and I don’t think anyone will truly have privacy unless we live in a system where Jim Bell’s crazed “Assassination Politics” could actually be a reality.

    The concept of private registrations, however, creates privacy at the loss of accountability. The accountability isn’t just there to let you realize that whitehouse.com isn’t owned by whitehouse.gov, or that emails from paypal.zzzz.com aren’t really from paypal — but also to let you know that supposed homepages of famous celebrities are really sad cries for attention by desperate midwestern housewives, and the white house’s favorite reporter Jeff Gannon is both a shill for the Christian Right and the owner of a gay military escort service — at once.

    Even with requirements and possible laws, there are always ways to maintin sufficient anonymity. One can use PO Boxes, create dummy corporations to house multiple blogs, register a single domain for anonymous users and let it be known as such, or just use an anonymous account on livejournal or blogger.

    On another facet, domain registration information gives the average user the ablility to notify the domain contacts that their web site has been defaced, someone is fraudulently sending emails from their systems, or just the simple ‘your web server is broken’.

    With or without a private registration, the government will be able to get detailed information about the owner. The real debate is whether or not this information will be available to the average user.

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