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Most of the search engine results, particularly those at the top of the search result hierarchy, link to webpage of registrars attempting to sell domain names and related services. It is not at all intuitive how to access WHOIS in order to find the domain registrant information. In order to become proficient with WHOIS, it’s important to start in the right place. ICANN’s WHOIS service, once it is operational, may make it easier to conduct WHOIS searches.
WHOIS services are provided by registrars and registries for the domain names that they sponsor. Access to this distributed network of independent databases is provided in two ways – through a free web page and through a free Port 43 service. The web page allows real-time access to WHOIS data in individual searches; the Port 43 access allows automated queries by machine. Searches for the full WHOIS contact data for the registrant and the designated administrator and technician, as well as the registration creation and expiration dates can be performed at the registrar’s systems (either through its web page and Port 43 service) or through the systems of certain registries that are obligated to provide “thick” or full contact data. A “thin” registry provides minimal information, namely, the registrar, name servers and registration dates. All of the new gTLDs will have “thick” records.
ICANN’s WHOIS service, once operational (Phase II), will provide an additional resource for accessing WHOIS in addition to the access provided by registrars and registries.
Uses of WHOIS
WHOIS is used for many legitimate purposes. Under ICANN’s agreements, WHOIS may be used for any lawful purposes except to enable marketing or spam, or to enable high volume, automated processes to query a registrar or registry’s systems, except to manage domain names. In addition to identifying domain name holders, WHOIS data also allows network administrators and others to find and fix system problems and to maintain Internet stability. With it, they can determine the availability of domain names, combat spam or fraud, identify trademark infringement and enhance accountability of domain name registrants. WHOIS data is sometimes used to track down and identify registrants who may be posting illegal content or engaging in phishing scams. These are just a few examples of how WHOIS helps maintain a healthy Internet ecosystem.
Keeping WHOIS Accurate
ICANN requires WHOIS information to be accurate throughout the registration period of a domain name. Until recently, registrars were not required to proactively verify or validate the information provided by domain name holders. Beginning in 2014, ICANN requires registrars who have signed its new 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA) to validate and verify certain WHOIS entries.
Domain name holders, or “registrants,” as they are referred to, need to carefully follow the instructions of their registrar or risk losing their domain names at the time of registration. A registrar may require a response to an e-mail sent to the email listed in WHOIS or a response from the phone number listed in WHOIS.
Because information can change over time, ICANN requires registrars to provide each registrant with an annual opportunity to review and correct their domain name WHOIS data. They also get a reminder that providing false data can be grounds for registration cancellation. Anyone who submits false data or fails to respond to registrar inquiries related to the accuracy of their data risks having their domain name be cancelled or suspended. Registrants need to respond quickly to inquiries from their registrar related to the accuracy of their contact data to avoid cancellation or suspension.
Conversely, Internet users who find that WHOIS data is incomplete or incorrect can file a complaint with ICANN, which will forward it to the sponsoring registrar. The registrar will investigate and correct inaccurate data in response to the complaint. Beginning in 2014, registrars under the new 2013 RAA are also required to reverify and revalidate certain WHOIS fields in response to a WHOIS inaccuracy claim.
Sometimes results may not show any contact information for the actual operator of a domain name and instead display information from a privacy and proxy service. Some registries and registrars offer privacy or proxy services that show only the contact information of the service, to shield registrants who don’t want their personal information to appear in the database. Their anonymity is not guaranteed since registrars may abide by any legal requirements to share the true identity of the registrant. Likewise, registries or registrars in countries where privacy laws prohibit the collection and publishing of personal data are not required to break those laws to satisfy WHOIS. Instead, they are eligible to apply to ICANN for a WHOIS waiver.