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ICANN launches Whois review

But what's it really up to?

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Everyone's favourite Internet Napoleon ICANN has launched a public review of the Whois system.

The Whois system, if you don't know, is basically the Internet's phone directory. Tap in a domain name and it will tell you if the domain is already registered and if so by who. From here the level of information varies depending on what the domain is.

Coms, nets and orgs give a wide range of information including contact details, with telephone number, both personal and technical and dates that the domain was registered/renewed etc. Country codes vary in the amount of information they offer: for example co.uks - run by Nominet - give you very little information so finding offline contact details can be like getting blood from a stone.

And so ICANN has produced a fairly lengthy survey form which anyone can fill in to express their feelings about the current Whois system with a view to improving the system for the majority of users.

This is good news. It's precisely the service that ICANN ought to be providing - improving the Internet infrastructure by taking a referendum of the people that use it.

However, this is also ICANN we're talking about, and past experience dictates that there's an ulterior motive. The form itself is impartial and surprisingly open-minded for ICANN (it even includes the option that ICANN actually pay for the upkeep of the Whois database - blimey!). However, just because the information gathering exercise is non-biased does not mean that the resulting stats won't be twisted to fit whatever cause ICANN wishes to embark upon.

The most likely negative use ICANN can put the survey to is reeling in country code top-level domains to its policy. As the people around the world that run country TLDs have grown more militant at ICANN's emperor-like stance - including threatening to pull out of ICANN's control completely - the secretive organisation has been looking at ways to quieten the peasants.

One indication of this was its transparent attempt to force ccTLDs into signing up to the flawed uniform dispute resolution policy (UDRP) in February. If ICANN starts exerting influence on one aspect of ccTLDs, you can be sure it will push it for all it's worth with the threat of withdrawal from whatever agreements have already been made.

If this is the route ICANN is attempting to follow, the survey will give it plenty of ammunition. For example, there are frequent references to Whois information being "inaccurate" i.e. people (bad people) give limited or false information and then do all manner of nasty things. These people should be held accountable! The simple fact is though that it is surprisingly easy to shut down a site if they are up to dodgy or illegal things - just go to the ISP or domain registrar. This logic is unlikely to be followed by ICANN in its mission to gain control of the entire Internet however.

The other aspect about even having a review of the Whois database and including domains in which ICANN doesn't have any control over is that it is demonstrating its belief that it ought to be in control. We remember telling our concerns about ICANN's Napoleonic crusade over a beer to a leading light in the UK's Net infrastructure. He expressed a very clear view that ICANN was simply the gatekeeper for the Internet and any attempt to become Lord of the manor would be vigorously resisted.

That's fine for the UK - a confidently strong member of the Internet community - but what of the other countries that see having ICANN's favour as a lifebuoy?

While we would love to see ICANN doing its job as gatekeeper and general housekeeper of the Internet system, we've never seen any evidence that it is happy in this lowly role. We will be watching the survey results very carefully. ®

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