This weekend I bought my own domain name and became the proud owner of LizzBryce.com. The practical use has yet to be determined, but for $5 I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
As it turns out, the simple act of purchasing a domain name is the Internet equivalent of spray painting my personal information on the side of the CN tower.
I’ve wanted to own my domain name for some time now. I’ve always been interested in web design and I thought that this would be an opportunity to practice with little consequence. What I hadn’t counted on was the amount of information I was about to reveal to the general public. Unbeknownst to me, every domain name owner on the Internet is listed in a database called “Whois.”
I was shocked when I discovered this. As a blogger, I had generally refrained from revealing too many personal details or pictures on my site. While I knew I would be giving up some of this anonymity by purchasing a domain with my full name, I comforted myself knowing that there is not much that can be done with a name – and besides, it already shows up on Facebook.
Even more surprising than the existence of this database was the fact that I wasn’t warned about it before I made my purchase. A full day after completing the transaction, I received an e-mail in my inbox sounding the alarms: “Your Personal Information is Not Protected!” read the subject line. My domain registrar was offering to mask my identity, at least on the public list. For only $11 a year I could avoid becoming one of 275,000 Americans who become “victims of Internet crime.”
I didn’t know what to do. The e-mail left me feeling vulnerable and confused. I had never heard of the database so I decided to do some investigating.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization formed to oversee Internet-related tasks that were once performed by the U.S. government, supervises the assignment of domain names and IP addresses. According to ICANN’s website, domain registrars are required to “collect and provide free public access to the . . . date the domain was created and when its registration expires, and the contact information for the Registered Name Holder, the technical contact, and the administrative contact.” For celebrities like Britney Spears or Brad Pitt, the database lists the law firm that handles their website. For business websites the name and address of the business is listed. In my case, my name, home address, phone number, and e-mail were out there for the world to see.
Of course there are many websites that reveal personal information. Canada411 lists home phone numbers and addresses, and allows people to perform “reverse lookups” by searching by name, phone number or address. Google Street View shows my apartment building, the coffee shop I see from my window and the bookstore across the street – not to mention the cars that were driving by at the time the pictures were taken. And I use these technologies often – sometimes for serious reasons, and sometimes just for fun. But I can’t help but ask have we gone too far?
All of these technologies have legitimate uses, and I believe were conceived with good intentions. Whois is meant to prevent people from using the Internet as a shield when promoting hateful, dangerous or illegal content. But while the rules governing the database state that persons may not use it for unlawful purposes, I am pretty sure that anyone seeking out information for unlawful reasons doesn’t care.
So whether it was to protect myself from criminals, or because I plan to become a criminal myself, I paid that $11 and I will sleep easier tonight. Will you?