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Private domains not so private?

An Oregon librarian says one of the largest domain registrars reneged on its promise to keep his personal information private.

A dispute over a librarian's attempts to out what he called corruption in the world of poetry competitions has led to a new battle in which he is accusing one of the country's largest domain registrars of illegitimately exposing his personal information.

Alan Cordle, a Portland, Ore., librarian, had been posting information on his Web site, Foetry, that he said illustrated a pattern of patronage and other ethical problems in high-level poetry competitions.

But because his wife was a poet, he decided to register Foetry anonymously through GoDaddy's Domains By Proxy (DBP) division, which markets a service allowing domain owners' contact information to remain private.

But some in the poetry community were infuriated by Cordle's assertions, he said, and demanded that DBP reveal his identity.

And while the circumstances of what happened are in dispute, the company decided to cancel Cordle's DBP account and make his information public.

Now, Cordle is trying to raise awareness about what he says is the service's duplicity. And in the process, he is putting a spotlight on the realities of trying to remain anonymous on the Internet today.

"I was probably naive," Cordle said. "I thought that they would completely protect my privacy. That's the whole purpose of DBP. They don't do anything else but purport to protect domain privacy."

Services like DBP are an adjunct to typical domain registration. Normally, when someone registers a Web site name, their personal information--including name, address, phone number and e-mail--are available to anyone through WhoIs databases. But services like DBP offer to keep private information secret by registering domains on behalf of their clients, and charge a premium for the privilege.

But the company said that despite its marketing efforts, DBP is under no legal obligation to maintain its customers' privacy.

"I can tell you DBP was within its rights to cancel Mr. Cordle's privacy services pursuant to the terms of its proxy agreement," said Nima Kelly, GoDaddy's vice president of public relations.

"You understand and agree that DBP has the absolute right and power, in its sole discretion and without any liability to you whatsoever," the agreement states, to "close accounts (or) reveal your name and personal information."

In general, the agreement states, DBP would only take such action when it is subpoenaed or legally required to do so, but the language doesn't preclude any circumstances in which it could decide to reveal a customer's information.

Cordle claims GoDaddy's biggest infraction was revealing his personal information, which subsequently spread across a number of poetry-related Web sites, without contacting him first.

"The main thing I'm angry about is that they were supposed to contact me," he said. But "I received no e-mail nor a phone call."

Meanwhile, Cordle isn't the only DBP customer unhappy with its performance.

David Payer, a Web site owner from Iowa, said he discovered that DBP had given his personal information out over the phone after getting a phone request for it.

"They missed the boat on this one," Payer said. "They simply did it wrong. They should have called me at least. But I got neither a telephone call nor an e-mail, and they simply gave away the information."

To some, DBP's actions, regardless of the reasoning behind them, are unfortunate, especially in light of comments made on GoDaddy President Bob Parson's blog about the virtues of the DBP service.

"The benefits of private domain registration are not trivial," Parson wrote, before listing a number of rights people lose, including protection from having their home address made public, if their personal information is made public against their will.

"The tradition of anonymous speech is a long one in this country," said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "and, in fact, is a constitutionally protected right. And people should have an avenue to speak anonymously online."

Bankston said that there are numerous venues online for anonymous speech, from Blogspot blogs to Geocities Web sites. But he cautioned against counting on the goodwill of companies like DBP.

"Trusting a third party to keep your identity secret for you," he said, "is a dangerous game."