Every top level domain has an appointed agency, responsible for selling and managing ownership of web addresses ending in that TLD. For instance, any domain names ending in .uk are supervised by a body called Nominet. They maintain a database of ownership details on behalf of the global Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It’s easy to check who owns a co.uk or org.uk domain by using the WHOIS lookup service on Nominet’s website.
Domain name validation can be considered as an online version of the phone book. Every web address has an owner, required by law to register their details when purchasing a new domain name. This is to prevent ownership disputes, and to provide accountability if any illegal content is uploaded. Until ownership details are supplied to the relevant registrar, the website is legally required to remain offline. But what happens if you don’t want your name and contact details included in a publicly-accessible directory of website owners?
How to Enforce Domain Privacy
This is where the concept of domain privacy comes in. It’s essentially the difference between using your own name and address for postal correspondence, or registering a PO Box. The latter still requires your name and proof of ID to set up, but this data remains confidential and only the PO Box details are publicly visible. In short, it provides anonymity, which may be needed for a number of reasons:
- Avoiding unwanted attention. Some people have suffered stalking or harassment, and are desperate to remain out of sight. Others may be launching controversial or sensitive websites that might be damaging if their involvement is obvious, such as a whistleblowing platform exposing malpractice from within a company. Proxy information is displayed publicly, although the registrar can still contact you if need be.
- Reducing spam. ICANN didn’t create the domain name registry system so black hat marketers could spam-bomb people. But the more places your email address is published, the greater the risk of scraper tools adding it to junk mailing lists. Domain privacy reduces the number of spam emails you receive. It also reduces cold calling and junk mail, with phone numbers and postal addresses being hidden from view too.
- Maintaining a competitive advantage. If you regularly launch new products or services, competitors can easily monitor your activities by looking up any domain names you’ve registered. If they can’t run a WHOIS search to see which websites you own, it’s far harder to undertake this form of corporate espionage. That maintains the element of surprise prior to launching a new site – crucial in some industries.
- Preventing crime. While identity theft tends to focus on financial information, cloning the identity of a website’s owner is also troublesome. With your name, address, phone number and email address, someone could try to create multiple accounts in your (or your company’s) name. They might try to hijack your site for malevolent purposes, particularly if they can obtain your date of birth from social media accounts.
What Are the Disadvantages of Domain Privacy?
Of course, domain privacy does have a number of downsides. Legitimate businesses rarely hide behind a cloak of anonymity, and prospective customers discovering a private WHOIS listing might hesitate to trust you with up-front payments or confidential information. A private domain registration is more expensive than a standard one, and the absence of a fees cap means costs might begin to spiral in future.
Some unscrupulous domain registrars have violated ICANN privacy policies, so registering a less common TLD may still expose you to the public gaze. And switching from a public listing to a private one won’t stop your data being visible in historic searches of old domain ownership lists. Furthermore, it potentially makes the process of reselling a domain name more difficult at a later date.
Nevertheless, domain privacy offers plenty of advantages. While retrospectively cloaking an existing domain is pretty pointless, anyone planning to launch a new website or purchase a domain name should consider the merits of using proxy contact information to remain below the radar…