Scottsdale-based Internet domain registrar GoDaddy.com Inc. reached a milestone recently, announcing the registration of its 50millionth domain name since opening in 1997.
Go Daddy has vaulted to the top of the domain-registrar heap with the help of several innovations, perhaps the most significant among them being "private" domain registration.
Go Daddy invented and launched the concept of private registration in 2002 with the formation of an affiliate company called Domains By Proxy Inc. It has been hugely successful, and nearly every Go Daddy competitor has since copied the idea.
Private registration allows the registrant of an Internet domain, or Web address, to keep his or her name and contact information out of a searchable online directory known as the "Whois" directory.
Champions of free speech say private domain registration is important because it allows website authors to speak their minds without fear of retaliation. Privacy advocates support it, too, saying it helps reduce identity and domain theft.
But some critics say private domain registration's main value is providing a haven for anonymous trash-talkers and scam artists, particularly if their targets are regular people who can't afford an expensive attorney.
Others say companies such as Domains By Proxy hand over registrants' private information too readily when their Web content angers or offends someone.
Phoenix attorney Fredric Bellamy said private domain registrars could be shielding customers' identities more stubbornly but have opted not to because of potential legal costs.
"Most of these outfits, if they're hit with a valid subpoena, they could challenge it, but by and large they don't want to go that far," said Bellamy, a shareholder at Ryley Carlock & Applewhite and a director of the Arizona Technology Council.
Is Web privacy a right?
In 1998, a private, non-profit corporation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, took over responsibility for registering Internet domain names from the U.S. government.
Among ICANN's rules for the registration of Internet domains, such as Amazon.com or unitedway.org, is that the registrants' names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses are to be kept on file in a public registry.
The registry can be searched by visiting the website of any domain registrar and selecting a Whois search.
When a domain is registered through a private registrar such as Domains By Proxy, a Whois lookup displays the registrar's information instead of the website's registrant.
Go Daddy deputy general counsel Nima Kelly said company founder Bob Parsons came up with the idea for private registration when a customer who didn't know her domain-registration information would be made public complained to the company.
A stalker had gotten her personal information by doing a Whois lookup on her website, Kelly said.
Parsons agreed to replace her contact information with Go Daddy's company information, Kelly said. Shortly thereafter, he came up with the idea for Domains By Proxy.
Parsons also developed the basic concepts for how private registration works, which have since been copied by dozens of competitors.
The private registrar becomes the Internet domain's legal owner, and it licenses the use of that domain to its customer. Kelly said there are strict terms of service and standard procedures for when and how the registrar's personal or company information is released in the event of a complaint or investigation.
"The overwhelming majority of people who use our service are law-abiding citizens who simply don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry to see their information," she said.
Domain names vs. trade names
There are many legitimate reasons why a business might want to register domain names privately, Kelly said, such as if the company wanted to reserve a domain for a new product but didn't yet want its competitors to know the product's name.
State governments historically have served as registrars and regulators of trade names, but none has extended that role to include domain names.
Domain names and trade names differ in a number of ways.
All trade-name registrants are publicly disclosed. In Arizona, the trade-name database is maintained by the Secretary of State's Office. But with the growth in popularity of private domain registration, many domain registrants have opted to keep their information private.
Generally, only businesses register trade names, but a large percentage of domain names are registered to private individuals for use as personal websites or blogs.
Another difference is that there can be multiple registrants of a single trade name in different industries or geographic regions, whereas each domain name can have just one registrant.
Consumers and criminals
Private domain registrars do a lot more than simply register Internet sites on behalf of their customers. They also provide a variety of services such as forwarding third-party e-mail inquiries to the registrants and handling complaints about privately registered sites.
Kelly said Domains By Proxy always cooperates with law-enforcement investigations and complies with court orders and subpoenas to release information about private registrants. At times it has been criticized for doing so, such as in 2003 when a website called Re-Code.com was pursued by Walmart for offering an online tool that rearranged consumer-product bar codes uploaded by customers to alter the products' prices.
Re-Code.com, which had billed itself as a mockery of Priceline.com, had been registered privately through Domains By Proxy, but when Walmart attorneys sent a letter demanding to know the registrant's information, the Go Daddy affiliate canceled Re-Code.com's privacy agreement and gave up its creator's information, court documents show.
But when it's a consumer who wants a business registrant's information because he or she has been ripped off by a website, getting that information can be far more difficult, Bellamy said.
"You may have a hard time ever collecting your money," he said.
Still, Kelly said Domains By Proxy does respond to all complaints and doesn't simply tell consumers to go away.
"We have a variety of standard operating procedures that we follow based on the nature of the complaint," she said. "We would try to get the consumer and the registrant together to get them talking."
Arizona Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Amy Rezzonico said that the private-domain-registration issue may warrant further discussion at the policy level, but that in the meantime, it's up to consumers to do their homework before handing over payment information to any website.
"Make sure they are a legitimate, registered business," Rezzonico said.
by J. Craig Anderson The Arizona Republic Nov. 5, 2011 11:51 AM
Private domain names multiply
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