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History of WHOIS

WHOIS traces its roots to 1982, when the Internet Engineering Task Force published a protocol for a directory service for ARPANET users. Initially, the directory simply listed the contact information that was requested of anyone transmitting data across the ARPANET.

As the Internet grew, WHOIS began to serve the needs of different stakeholders such as registrants, law enforcement agents, intellectual property and trademark owners, businesses and individual users. But the protocol remained fundamentally based on those original IETF standards. This is the WHOIS protocol that ICANN inherited when it was established in 1998. On 30 September 2009, ICANN and the U.S. signed an Affirmation of Commitments (AOC) which recognizes ICANN as an independent, private and non-profit organization.

A key provision in the AOC stated that ICANN "commits to enforcing its existing policy relating to WHOIS, subject to applicable laws. Such existing policy requires that ICANN implement measures to maintain timely, unrestricted and public access to accurate and complete WHOIS information, including registrant, technical, billing, and administrative contact information." The AOC also set up specific provisions for periodic reviews of WHOIS policy.

In 1999, ICANN began allowing other entities to offer domain name registration services. Registries are responsible for maintaining registries of top-level domain names.

Over the years, ICANN has used its agreements with registrars and registries to modify the WHOIS service requirements. These agreements set up the basic framework that dictates how the WHOIS service is operated. In addition, ICANN adopted several consensus policies aimed at improving the WHOIS service. The policies are:

  • WHOIS Data Reminder Policy (2003): at least once a year, registrars must email all registrants and remind them to review and update their WHOIS data; for example, in case of a new cell phone number or changed business address.

  • The Restored Name Accuracy Policy (2004): If a domain name is deleted because it contained incorrect contact data, or there was no response to requests for information, the name must remain on hold until the registrant provides updated and accurate WHOIS data.

  • WHOIS Marketing Restriction Policy (2004): This policy creates two changes to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement to try to bar use of the WHOIS data for marketing and re-use. Registrars must require third parties to "to agree not to use the [WHOIS] data to allow, enable, or otherwise support any marketing activities," and "not to sell or redistribute the [WHOIS] data" (with some exceptions).

ICANN's WHOIS protocol remains largely unchanged since 1999 - in spite of over a decade of task forces, working groups and studies, and changes in privacy laws. As a result, WHOIS is at the center of long-running debate and study at ICANN, among other Internet governance institutions, and in the global Internet community.

The evolution of the Internet ecosystem has created challenges for WHOIS in every area: accuracy, access, compliance, privacy, abuse and fraud, cost and policing. Questions have arisen about the fundamental design of WHOIS, which many believe is inadequate to meet the needs of today's Internet, much less the Internet of the future. Concerns about WHOIS obsolescence are equaled by concerns about the costs involved in changing or replacing WHOIS.

WHOIS faces these challenges because its use has expanded beyond what was envisaged when its founding protocol was designed. Many more stakeholders make use of it in legitimate ways not foreseen by its creators. So ICANN has had to modify WHOIS over the years; the consensus policies on accuracy are a prime example, as well as the introduction of validation and verification requirements in the new form of Registrar Accreditation Agreement (2013 RAA).

There are other challenges to WHOIS, as well. As domain names have become an important weapon to combat fraud and abuse, ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee recommended in SAC 38: Registrar Abuse Point of Contact that registrars and registries publish abuse point of contact information. This abuse contact would be responsible for addressing and providing timely response to abuse complaints received from recognized parties, such as other registries, registrars, law enforcement organizations and recognized members of the anti-abuse community. Beginning in 2014, registrars under the 2013 RAA will be required to publish WHOIS data that includes registrar abuse contacts.

Even with these modifications, there are calls in the community for improvements to the current WHOIS model. ICANN's Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) explores these areas and works to develop new policies to address each issue, as appropriate. Over the last decade, the GNSO has undertaken a series of activities to reevaluate the current WHOIS system, and has sought to collect data examining the importance of WHOIS to stakeholders. At the request of the Council, ICANN has initiated a series of WHOIS studies:

WHOIS Privacy and Proxy Services Abuse – This study examined the extent to which gTLD domain names used to conduct alleged illegal or harmful Internet activities are registered via Privacy or Proxy services to obscure the perpetrator's identity. The National Physical Laboratory performed this delivered its results in March 2014.

WHOIS Registrant Identification – This study used WHOIS data and content associated with domain names to classify entities that register gTLD domain names, including natural persons, legal persons, and Privacy and Proxy service providers. Using associated Internet content; it then classified entities using those domains and potentially commercial activities. NORC at the University of Chicago performed this delivered its results in May 2013.

WHOIS Misuse [PDF, 1.2 MB] -- This study examined the extent to which public WHOIS data is misused to address harmful communications such a phishing or identity theft. The Carnegie Mellon University Cylab in Pittsburgh, PA, USA performed this study and delivered its results in December 2013.

WHOIS Privacy and Proxy Relay and Reveal [PDF, 1.23 MB] – This study assessed the feasibility of conducting an in-depth study into communication Relay and identity Reveal requests sent for gTLD domain names registered using Proxy and Privacy services. The Interisle Consulting Group in Boston, MA, USA performed this study and delivered its results in June 2012.

WHOIS Service Requirements Survey [PDF, 633 KB] – This study surveyed community members to estimate the level of agreement. A GNSO Working Group was assembled to create a survey and delivered its results in July of 2010.

Report on Domain Name WHOIS Terminology and Structure [PDF, 236 KB] – To clear up the confusion regarding the various meanings of WHOIS, the SSAC conducted this study. ICANN accepted the recommendations of this report, The report was delivered in September 2011. The report recommended that ICANN transition to adopting new terminology to designate the different aspects of WHOIS. As a result, ICANN uses this new terminology to refer to the WHOIS system, which includes:

  • Domain Name Registration Data – Refers to the information that registrants provide when registering a domain name and that registrars or registries collect.
  • Domain Name Registration Data Access Protocol – Refers to the elements of a communications exchange—queries and responses—that make access to registration data possible. For example, the WHOIS protocol (RFC 3912) and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) (RFC 2616 and its updates) are commonly used to provide public access.
  • Domain Name Registration Data Directory Service – refers to the service offered by registries and registrars to provide access to the domain name registration data.