You might be surprised to find out that ownership information for any given domain, including name, telephone number, physical address, and email address, is publicly available and published on the internet. In fact, it’s actually a domain registration requirement that you provide accurate contact information that is listed in the databases of registrars, or else you risk having ownership of your domain suspended or revoked altogether.
WHOIS is a protocol for, you guessed it, discovering who is responsible for a domain. A number of web implementations for this protocol are available. Go ahead and give it a try over at ICANN. Is your contact information listed?
A Little Bit of History
Back when the internet was still in its infancy as ARPANET, a United States government-funded project with largely military needs in mind, anyone who was capable of transmitting information across the network was required to be registered in the WHOIS database. Over time, as the number of users on the network grew, WHOIS databases were kept in place for needs ranging from business to personal to law enforcement.
Registration rules for domain names now fall under the purview of ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. As part of ICANN’s agreement with the U.S. government, accurate and complete WHOIS records remain a requirement for all domains.
How to Protect Your Information
Many people understandably do not want their contact information publicly available on the internet for anyone to be able to look up. For one thing, it might simply unnerve people to have their home address and telephone number available for anyone to see. And for another, having an email address published on the internet just invites a deluge of spam.
Some domain owners will, for those reasons, provide fake contact information in their domain’s WHOIS. The problem with this practice is that it is risky. For one thing, you will miss notices that your domain is expiring soon and needs to be renewed. But for another, if your registrar or ICANN itself notices that your domain has obviously fake information, your ownership of the domain could be terminated.
Fortunately, many domain registrars such as Namecheap offer something called domain privacy, which allows domain owners to effectively mask their real contact information with that of either the registrar or of a third-party domain privacy company. Domains registered at HostGator, for example, will list HostGator’s information in your WHOIS records. Other registrars commonly use third parties like WhoisGuard.
This practice falls within ICANN’s rules because either the registrars or the third-party privacy companies will keep a private database of your contact information. Law enforcement would still be able to compel them to provide your real contact information if they needed to, but the general public would not.
One of the best features of domain privacy is that even though your contact information is entirely private, you can still receive emails if someone legitimate tried to send you one at the listed masked address. Let’s take the example from the screenshot above, where firstname.lastname@example.org has been masked with email@example.com. If I were to email firstname.lastname@example.org, WhoisGuard would forward that along to email@example.com if my email passed its spam filters, but otherwise not. No more spam!
Note that domain privacy typically requires you to pay a small annual fee, though the cost will differ depending on your registrar. Furthermore, domain privacy is not available for many country-specific domains such as .us and .uk. You will need to check with your registrar if you own one of these domains to see if domain privacy is possible for you.
Be sure to check out our web hosting reviews to see which companies offer privacy options with domain registration.