As reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ICANN, the regulatory body that governs how website domains are implemented worldwide, is mulling a rule change that would radically alter the nature of privacy for website owners. Under current rules, every owner is required to provide contact information, including a mailing address and telephone number, for each domain they own. Many site administrators get around that rule by subscribing to a proxy service. The proxy company lists its own information on your site’s WHOIS contact information, and your information remains private.
Though far from ideal, that arrangement has been a boon to many website owners. The example EFF gives is of a transgender administrator who might otherwise be subject to harassment. Proxy listings can be useful for any number of reasons, though. People who operate break-even, online-only businesses out of their home might not want everyone to be able to find out where they sleep at night. Freelance writers might prefer to keep unsolicited correspondence to their professional email, rather than open up their post office box to anyone with an axe to grind.
The prospective rule would only bar commercial sites from using proxies, but the standard for what counts as “commercial” tends to be a bit fuzzy when it comes to websites. Simply displaying ads in order to cover the costs of operating a non-commercial site might put an admin on the wrong side of the rule. Given that the Internet has given rise to a whole range of commercial microtransactions, like artists selling commissions for $20 a pop, a measure of privacy might make sense even in some undeniable commercial situations.
The change would cause havoc in the short term. What we could expect to see in the long term is a consolidation of ownership on the web. Proxy contact information makes it safe for private individuals and microbusiness to own their own domains. Without that safeguard, the inherent vulnerability of ownership would effectively raise the cost of owning a domain, so that only business with the resources need to withstand abuse will be willing or able to risk it.
That, in turn, would push large swaths of the Web to platforms where they no longer shoulder the burden of domain ownership. Instead of running your own (ad-supported) blog, you’d use Medium. Rather than sell your art from a site you designed to stand out, you’d resign yourself to the wilderness of Etsy. That, in turn, would make the small players ever more dependent on start-ups and digital giants for essential services they might have otherwise handled themselves. Given the liberating promise of the Web as we’ve known it until now, that seems like a major step back.