Security Experts:

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Striving to Make the WHOIS Better for Everyone

The Main Issue In All WHOIS Discussions Is a Collective Understanding And Agreement About the Purpose of Domain Name Registration Data.

Whether you have registered one domain name or thousands, you have likely received a WHOIS Data Reminder, a notice that all ICANN-accredited registrars send out annually. The reminder asks domain registrants to review the WHOIS data associated with their domains and to make any necessary corrections because false data can result in a registration being cancelled.

The strictness of this notice indicates how the information collected and maintained in the WHOIS for each top-level domain is an ongoing concern. For individuals and companies who register domains on a regular basis, there is sometimes apprehension about the ease with which that data — like the names and addresses of the people registering — can be accessed and used. This issue has lead to businesses that specialize in WHOIS privacy and proxy services that allow registrants to maintain anonymity when registering a domain: sometimes innocently, sometimes to hide registrants from law enforcement.

Striving to Make the WHOIS Better for EveryoneTo address these concerns, ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) – of which I am a member – recently issued recommendations on the need for a policy to define the purpose of collecting and maintaining registration data. As the SSAC noted in its recommendations, the issues surrounding the WHOIS are analogous to the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant:

Several blind men each touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. Then, they compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. Each man believes his experience fully defines the elephant and that all other explanations are wrong.

The result: the men either come together to “see” the complete elephant or choose not to collaborate, which dooms the possibility of arriving at a common understanding.

In that same way, the primary problem facing all WHOIS discussions is a collective understanding and agreement about the purpose of domain name registration data (the WHOIS). Is it for supporting the security and stability of the Internet by providing contact points for network operators and administrators? Is it to help counter intellectual property infringement, fraud and abuse?

Although there have been “WHOIS” recommendations since 2003, the lack of progress in the long-running “WHOIS” debate is not surprising, given the lack of an agreed rationale. So, in the new recommendations (WHOIS: Blind Men and an Elephant, SAC055), there is now the pursuit of the root cause for WHOIS.

So why do we collect WHOIS data?

Historically, the WHOIS was created to make contact information available both for sites and for individuals in what was then a small Internet community. Since that time, domain names have become an industry and the WHOIS protocol has been adopted in support of that industry. What exists today is far larger than what most of the Internet creators anticipated.

Given the scope of the industry and the many kinds of industry “players,” it is important to understand what purpose is solved by collecting WHOIS data.

The SSAC posits that there are primarily four distinct groups who use the WHOIS:

• The general public

• Law enforcement

• Intellectual property owners

• Security practitioners.

The term “WHOIS” is used by each of these communities, but the term means something different to each one of them. That means the first step toward solving the WHOIS “problem” is a policy defining the purpose of collecting and maintaining registration data. Until that problem is resolved, all work in other WHOIS areas should be deferred because — without a common policy — there is no common solution.

What do you say?

To help ICANN better understand the many users of WHOIS data and help arrive at a common language in discussing WHOIS access, ICANN has created a survey to learn more about WHOIS technical components and the level of support needed for WHOIS technical requirements. If you are a website owner or a website user, you can participate in the online survey through October 31, 2012.

Ram Mohan is the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Afilias, a global provider of Internet infrastructure services including domain name registry and DNS solutions. Ram also serves as the Security & Stability Advisory Committee's liaison to ICANN’s Board of Directors and has helped direct and write numerous policies effecting domain name registration and DNS security.