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Lawmakers seek to purify Web records

Two House members introduce legislation that threatens up to five years in prison for people who provide false contact information when signing up for Internet addresses.

People who provide false data when registering a domain name on the Web could be thrown into jail for up to five years, if a recently introduced bill becomes law.

Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Howard Coble, R-N.C., introduced the legislation Thursday, targeting Internet address registration procedures that make it easier for Web site publishers to stay anonymous.

"Whoever knowingly and with intent to defraud provides material and misleading false contact information to a domain name registrar, domain name registry or other domain name registration authority in registering a domain name shall be fined...or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both," the bill said.

Bogus information has long been included in some domain name registries, making it difficult for law enforcement officials and others to track down people who own Web sites through lists such as WHOIS, a database for the .com, .net and .org domains that contains contact information of people who register Web sites.

Some critics, however, said the bill may go too far, noting that individuals or organizations may have legitimate reasons for placing anonymous data on the registries.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the proposed bill is unclear as to what is defined as "false" or "intent to fraud." He said there are some cases where individuals would intentionally give incorrect data when setting up a domain for spamming so that they would not be tracked down. But others such as attorneys or nonprofit organizations, for example, would set up domain names on behalf of someone else or give anonymous information to protect sensitive or private information.

"There's a possibility that the requirement for the 'intent to defraud' could be construed to be for commercial purposes as opposed to other purposes that might effectively be anonymous...You would hate to leave that up to what a court defines it should be," Tien said. "When we are trying to clamp down on 'false' or 'misleading' information and contact information, how does that affect those who would simply want to be private?"

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. Spokesmen for Berman and Coble could not be immediately reached for comment.