But now Network Solutions (NSI) is seriously considering altering that policy. And as with any issue involving domain names--and especially any issue involving NSI--controversy has ensued.
NSI established a task force a few months ago to address the controversy, and is "working on this issue diligently," according to David Graves, the company's director of business affairs. While Graves did not have a precise time frame for resolving the issue, he said that all options--ranging from closing the database to the public to keeping only parts of it open to leaving it open like it is now--are on the table.
Network Solutions, he said, is facing a dilemma, and must weigh privacy rights of registrants against the public's right to know who is behind the most popular domain names on the Net--including those ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org."
The database issue, Graves said, is yet another casualty of the Internet's phenomenal growth. No longer is the Net a humble medium used solely by scientific researchers to gather and exchange global information in a relatively closed but trusting atmosphere. Today, everyone--from researchers and techies to law enforcement officials and businesses with copyright interests--has access to the domain database. Junk emailers and people with questionable intentions have access too.
"There's a lot of very legitimate users of the WHOIS database," Graves said. "On the flip side, there's the issue of disclosure of personal information. That runs counter to the spirit and intent of privacy considerations."
Critics of NSI, however, say that there also are political concerns. By spring, NSI will for the first time face competition from other registrars, and some argue that the company has a vested financial interest in closing off its database. More than 3 million registrants collected by NSI since 1993 are included, dating from the time when the U.S. government first granted NSI the exclusive contract to run the most popular top-level domains.
"NSI's perspective is, they may pretend to be interested, they may pretend to care for the interests of their customers, but in fact their interests are purely selfish," said Carl Oppedahl, an intellectual property attorney and an outspoken critic of NSI. "They want to make it difficult for any would-be competitor to NSI to be able to reach their customers. That's what's really going on."
NSI, for its part, acknowledged that keeping the database away from competitors is one motivating factor.
"I would predict that, come this spring, when we roll out the competitive registration system, these new companies will want to protect their customer information themselves," Graves said. "I submit to you, why should we be different?
"I would suggest to you that, when AT&T was broken up into all the small competing bells, AT&T was not required to give up their entire database [collected] over the years."
Graves said, competition is only one of many considerations NSI is taking into account. "We're looking at everything. But the biggest issues that are driving it are respect for individuals' privacy and how to balance out privacy on the one hand and legitimate use of the data on the other."
Regardless of what is driving NSI's move to alter its database, a move reported in Business Week, if the company decides to cut off information that now is public, it is bound to meet with harsh criticism.
For example, intellectual property attorneys trying to safeguard their clients' trademarked names regularly use the database to contact possible trademark infringers, and likely will fight any decision to restrict access. "Trademark lawyers will certainly tell you that they want to be able to find out exactly who owns a domain name so they can sue them," Oppedahl said.
He noted that there are other ways NSI could help guard individual privacy, aside from restricting database access. One way would be to warn users that the information they provide when signing up for a domain name will be made public, and to encourage them to list business addresses or P.O boxes rather than personal addresses. But Graves said a warning--an option he said NSI is considering--also could encourage people to give false information.
Oppedahl likened the database of domain name owner records to that of property owner records, and said that the information should be publicly available.
"It ought to be the case that people who use a domain name to do something ought to be findable so they can be brought to task if they do something improper--whether it's trademark infringement or spamming."
But Eric Lyons, president of Tonic Domains, which runs the top-level domain ".to" for the country Tonga, questioned the legitimacy of making everyone's registrations public.
Tonic is among those companies that decided to keep its database private, a decision that was not without its own difficulties. While registered persons weren't receiving spam, Tonic found that spammers were using the domains as a refuge because they could not immediately be identified through them. That's why Tonic created a no-spamming policy and rescinds the domain names of people who are found to be spamming.
He acknowledged that the issue is fraught with complexity and that there are no easy answers.
"It's an interesting debate," Lyons said. When it comes to copyright issues, "we're still tying to figure out what the ideal rules are."