It’s hard to pick up a paper, or an iPad, without reading about some bit of privacy that Americans have lost—or given up—in exchange for one convenience or another. It’s rare however that such an egregious attack on our privacy, like the one underway against every website owner in the world today and in the future, can march forward so quietly and without contest.
The battlefront is inside ICANN (the global body that regulates website domain names) and a powerful group of intellectual property lobbyists who are pushing for new rules that attack the very heart of digital privacy rights on the Web.
Here’s the issue. Historically, individuals and businesses who register a domain name can use privacy services that keep their personal information confidential. The private details needed to register a site, including home addresses and phone numbers, are currently held in confidence with the domain provider and only shared with outside parties under narrow circumstances, such as a legal warrant or subpoena. It’s a process that works well to balance privacy protections with law enforcement’s need to root out bad players who would use the Internet for criminal activity.
The new proposal, drafted and lobbied for by lawyers from the film and music industry, is designed to give them special access to a website owner’s confidential information so they can identify people they suspect of copyright and trademark violations without “all the hassle” of privacy protections. Though that’s unacceptable in itself, the proposed rules are far more reaching. Under the new system, domain providers like GoDaddy would be required to turn over a customer’s contact information to anyone who makes targeted claims against a website owner—without a subpoena, search warrant, or due process of any kind. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Estranged spouses, business competitors, rogue states and clandestine government agencies will all have unfettered access, without need for a single shred of verifiable evidence of wrongdoing. The doors to your confidential information will be effectively propped wide open.
Make no mistake, our current domain privacy protections matter for the welfare and safety of anyone who does, or ever will own a website. Domain privacy protects the security of shelters that need to keep their physical locations confidential to safeguard abused women and children. It protects the anonymity of political activist and whistle-blowers around the world who speak out online at great personal risk to themselves and their families. It protects bloggers and Internet personalities from stalkers. And it protects home-based Internet businesses who don’t have the means to secure their assets and inventories to the same degree as brick-and-mortar operations—to name just a few.
As CEO of the world’s largest domain registrar and Web host, I want to make it abundantly clear that we do not allow our customers to use our domain privacy services as a shield for criminal or other unlawful activity. We do everything in our power to help law enforcement and intellectual property owners do their jobs—but they must follow a proper legal and evidence-based process.
The overwhelming majority of online activity is legal and legitimate—and the newly proposed rules would treat all website owners as guilty first until proven innocent. Though admittedly convenient for lawyers and governments, this policy is as un-American as anything I can imagine.
The good news is that it’s not too late to change ICANN’s course. ICANN has opened a window for public comment on this program, and is seeking input from the public. You can email ICANN directly at email@example.com or easier yet, you can sign the online petition to protect domain privacy at savedomainprivacy.org. ICANN has set a deadline of July 7, 2015, so the window to act is small.
Though our privacy rights seem to be under constant attack, this is one fight we can win if each of us is moved to action. I’d ask everyone reading today to consider what’s at risk. Even if you don’t have a website yourself, your favorite local business, your local charity or your local church almost certainly does. Please help to protect your rights and theirs by sending ICANN a strong message to preserve domain privacy or by signing the online petition to demand the same.