Maybe UCANN school ICANN on whois

by Doc Searls

Raise your hand if you use whois every day. Even if your hand isn't up, and you just regard whois as an essential sysadmin tool, this post is for you.

Because if you're interested in keeping whois working for the those it was made for in the first place, you need to visit the battlefield where whois' future is being determined right now. That is, you must be Beowulf to the Grendel that is the Intellectual Property Community. Worse, you must confront him in the vast cave that is ICANN.

Except ICANN is more like Grendel's cave, only a helluva lot bigger, and far more boring. It's easy for an outsider to be daunted by ICANN's labyrinthine bureaucracy, its complex processes, its mountain of documents, the galactic scale of its influence, the ecclesiology of its high-level gatherings and its near-countless topics of concern. The relatively small topic what happens to whois would be easy to miss. For example, it's not even listed among the many current topics on ICANN's top-level topics page.

Ah, but it's there, amidst the 25,500 results in a whois topic search at the ICANN site. Among those results is a complicated Public Comments page, where it says, as if recited by Vogons,

ICANN is currently soliciting Public Comments until 30 October, 2007 on the most recent GNSO WHOIS Task Force and Working Group Reports, recommendations, and related Staff Overview of Recent GNSO Whois Activity and Staff Implementation Notes on the WHOIS Working Group Report. An overview and links to all related WHOIS documents currently available for comment can be found at:

What matters are the date, which I've highlighted in red, and the link. Also this link, buried somewhere else I can't find again. It's for FINAL TASK FORCE REPORT ON WHOIS SERVICES 12 March 2007.

More scary than those are the comments themselves, which are thick with IP lawyers inveighing on behalf of something called Motion 2. This, along with two other Motions, can be found on page 9 of STAFF OVERVIEW OF RECENT GNSO WHOIS ACTIVITIES., a .pdf linked to by the document in the link of the quoted text above, prefixed by the ominous adjective "final".

Motions 1and 3, best as I can tell, call for minimal action.

Motion 2 calls for a complicated process that is obviously — given the uniform enthusiasm of IP lawyer advocacy of it in public comments — aimed toward turning whois into a whatis that is quite other than what it was intended for in the first place.

Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows and an ICANN veteran of long standing, put the situation this way :

Whois started out as a way for geeks to know who to speak to, so they could manage domain name issues. This was way back when there weren't many domains around. More recently it has turned into an enforcement resource for intellectual property crime hunters. Meanwhile, as everybody knows, whois does have privacy problems, in that names and other personal information about contacts can be revealed through it.

So, at the end of the day, what everybody has been trying to do is move toward an operational point of contact, which is all somebody managing domain names needs to know. From the geek point of view, this is a way to move whois back to what it was in the first place, which was a way to manage an Internet resource.

But the intellectual property folks see whois as their enforcement database, and are working toward making that its primary purpose. Those two purposes are at odds, and that's what the debate is all about. Except so far the public comments have come mostly from just one side.

So, if you want to weigh in on this debate, to fight the suited Grendels in ICANN's cave, you have until a day before Halloween to go do that.

How, you ask? Meaning, where do you submit comments? I don't know. I'm looking around and I'm missing it. Meanwhile, I have a bus to catch, and I want to post this as soon as I can. If one of ya'll figures out how, post it in the comments below, and I'll append it here after I get to where I'm going.

Okay, the ansswer is here: Comment away.

[Later...] Wendy Seltzer has posted WHOIS redux: Demand privacy in domain name registration, in response to this post. Joe Andrieu has posted an open comment as well.

I've also learned that CircleID has a huge repository of whois-related intelligence.

By the way, a number of people (including Wendy and Elliot, quoted above) have told me their comments to this post are meeting some kind of obstacle. My apologies. We're working on that. [Later...] Okay, it's fixed now.