Domain Name Privacy and WHOIS: What You Need to Know
Near the end of the domain name registration process, you’re asked to make a decision: would you like your site ownership information to be publicly available on the WHOIS network for no additional cost, or would you like to keep your information private for a fee?
All domain names must have up-to-date contact information available for lookup on the public WHOIS database. But this doesn’t sit well with some people, who would prefer to let the host company place their contact information in the WHOIS directory and field any phone calls or messages that come through about their domain.
Thus, private domain name registration is extremely popular for a variety of reasons, such as:
1. Keeping domain name ownership secret for tactical reasons. High-profile companies develop new products under strictly secret conditions. If a competitor were to hear about their latest innovations, they could lose a share of the market and a significant competitive edge. Nothing is revealed to the masses until the moment is right.
But sometimes the preparatory work that goes into a product launch requires buying a new domain name and setting up a new website. The domain name is often connected to the product name. Eagle-eyed competitors might use the WHOIS directory to gauge a company’s next move. The same information could potentially influence investments or the stock market, diluting the value of shares.
All in all, public WHOIS domain name registration for a high-profile company is akin to laying all their cards on the table. It is a poor tactical move, and one which private registration takes care of without a hitch.
2. Preventing spam. Public contact information is bound to be picked up by spammers and mass marketers. There are even scams circulating that attempt to collect money from website owners for fees or fines that simply do not exist. By privately registering a domain name, site owners are off the hook for being bombarded by spam originating from the WHOIS directory. The site host gets to filter those contacts instead.
3. Encouraging use of proper contact channels for complaints. Have you ever been so disgusted with a service that you wanted to take your complaint all the way to the top? How would you get hold of the company owner’s contact information? Some astute consumers have realized that WHOIS is a fantastic way to reach company owners directly. Company owners, on the other hand, aren’t so thrilled with these phone calls. By privatizing their domain name registration, companies encourage use of proper communication channels, such as customer support for complaints or the webmaster for site errors.
Disadvantages of Private Domain Name Registration, and Workarounds
However, private domain name registration can be expensive. If you own just one website, the yearly fee is probably reasonable, but it can add up if you own dozens of domain names. If you need to cut costs, private domain name registration is one service to nix.
If you’d like some anonymity but don’t want to pay those high private domain name registration fees, there are a couple of alternatives. First, you can choose to enter a webmaster’s contact information on the site, or add your company’s customer service department. That way, any spam phone calls, emails or snail mail can be filtered and handled by someone else. You as the owner won’t have your contact information made public this way.
Secondly, you can purchase a private domain name registration for just one of your websites, but then use it as a proxy for your other domains.
Finally, the cost of buying a single PO Box and toll-free number is minimal compared to the cost of registering hundreds of domain names privately. Use the PO Box and the toll-free number in the WHOIS contact fields to avoid spam and protect your company’s strategic moves from being revealed.
But Who Is WHOIS, Exactly?
Each domain name registrar operates its own WHOIS database, but ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) offers a centralized WHOIS lookup service. ICANN is also the authority responsible for regulating the various domain name registries, overseeing the approval of new generic top-level domain names (such as .city, .business or .eu domain names), and more.
Because of the relationship between ICANN and the domain registries, each registry’s WHOIS database must meet minimum requirements set by ICANN.
We’ve explained a few of the unorthodox uses of WHOIS above, but its proper uses include:
• Checking the availability of a domain name before registration
• Contacting administrators about site errors
• Contacting domain name holders about potential issues with copyrights
• Gathering information about a website for law enforcement purposes, such as after a cyberattack.
WHOIS requires domain name owners to keep their information up to date. If the domain name is transferred to a new owner, that fact must be reflected in the WHOIS directory.
Thus, there are some practical purposes to having public WHOIS contact information, but if the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, you can always have your registrar enter their own information and field any requests that come through the WHOIS database.