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Old 05-09-2006   #1
bragadocchio
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Google and a New Definition of Whois Information

There's been an assumption that one could make that Google is using domain name registration information in their rankings of pages on the web.

This could be based upon:

A google patent application from last year which describes some uses for whois information: Information retrieval based on historical data

Google became a domain name registrar last year, and hinted that it was for more purposes than just registering domain names.

But, a recent vote from ICANN, which I describe in a post on the Search Engine Watch Blog, Does Google Use Whois Information?, points to a new definition of the purpose of whois information from ICANN. Following that definition would mean removing from public view the name and contact information of the owner of a domain name.

It might also mean that purposes like using the information to augment search rankings is outside of the scope of what the information is meant for.

Google is a domain name registrar, so they may have greater access than the public will. But this definition, which was intended to protect privacy, points toward using the information only to provide a point of contact when there are technical problems with a web site.

Is Google using whois information, and regardless of whether they are or not, should they be under the new definition of the purpose of the information from ICANN?
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Old 05-09-2006   #2
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Of course we are all free to believe what we choose, but based on personal experience, YES, they use it and they have been for longer than they have been a registrar.

should they be priveleged to more information than you or I, (with the exception of their own customers of course),? NO! Absolutely not. That is unfair to competitors and to the public at large. Not to even mention the intent of privacy laws in the first place.

Does my believing that have an impact on anything other than dictating my own actions? ABSOLUTELY not!
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Old 05-09-2006   #3
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Was going to reply, but Bob said it all for me. In other words, "what Bob said".
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Old 05-09-2006   #4
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I'm not necessarily denying that Google is using domain registry information in their rankings of sites, and practices. But I am wondering if it's a practice that might end at some point, if they are.

I thought this article was interesting when it came out a few months ago:

What does Google know about your domain names? by Nick Wilsdon

It covers some of the issues that might face Google if they were using whois information.

I also thought that Google was acting as their own registrar, but when I do a whois search, I see a different company. Don't know why.

ICANN did issue a call for papers back on April 11th, which would review the contractual obligations for registrars. Amongst the issues they asked to be included was one involving the use of registry data:

Quote:
5. Uses of registry data

Registry data is available to the registry as a consequence of registry operation. Examples of registry data could include information on domain name registrants, information in domain name records, and traffic?data associated with providing the DNS resolution services associated with the registry.

5a Examine whether or not there should be a policy regarding the use of registry data for purposes other than for which it was collected, and if so, what the elements of that policy should be.

[insert comments]

5b. Determine whether any policy is necessary to ensure non-discriminatory access to registry data that is made available to third parties.

[insert comments]
Those papers were due by May 5th, and I don't know if they are going to make them public, or do so with any haste.

ICANN doesn't necessarily move very quickly, but in light of the recent vote on limiting the purpose of whois information, it's possible that policies limiting the use of whois information by registrars could be developed.
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Old 05-09-2006   #5
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...review the contractual obligations for registrars
How about making it a requirement that you actually be in the business of registering domains? Is that realistic?

Google is an accredited registrar, yet you cannot register a domain via Google, so it's pretty obvious why they became a registrar.

And yes, if the new definition is approved, they should be forced to follow the rules.
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Old 05-09-2006   #6
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There have been indications in the past that Google was making some use of domain information even prior to them becoming a registrar.

On another note, it's no secret that there were parties who snatched up expired domains for purposes of using the accrued PR for uses of the domains that were very, very far from their original topic. At one point in time PR stopped being carried over, so that domains expired and re-registered by another party had to start over from scratch without benefit of the PR accumulated by the original owner.

Anyone who's ever seen a discontinued church teen or childrens ministry site picked up and used for teen or kiddie porn can't really object to not allowing the previous PR - which represented votes for THAT site - to remain as votes for the new site.

But that's a different type of issue than what many webmasters were seeing at one time, that Googlebot somehow got wind of new domains that went up (prior to Google being a registrar), and questioning where they got that information from. At the time it seemed to be a phenomenon observed by those who had registered their domains through a particular registrar.

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should they be priveleged to more information than you or I
There was suspicion back then that they were somehow having access to privileged information not available to others prior to it being made public in any way. In fact, there were some who suspected that information was being leaked from an inside source.

Last edited by Marcia : 05-09-2006 at 07:47 PM.
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Old 05-10-2006   #7
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Those are great points, Marcia

And the information found in whois data has been used for a number of other purposes, such as helping people stop copyright infringement, and trademark infringement, and determining whether a site is legitimate or part of a phishing attack.

These were issues that the task force which reviewed the purpose and defintion of whois information discussed.

There are companies that use whois information for a lot of purposes beyond that envisioned by the creators of the information. For example, the company that Google is presently using as a registrar for google.com uses a reverse lookup of whois information to try to find people infringing trademarks:

Quote:
Our powerful gTLD reverse WHOIS and our extensive ccTLD database can help identify perpetrators to be tracked against a list of other properties that they own
See:

http://www.markmonitor.com/solutions/brandprotection/

In spite of such uses, the GNSO purposefully limited the definition of the purpose of whois information, and we may see that type of use of the information going away.

Part of the reason is because the primary reason why that information is collected is to enable people to reach a technical contact when there is a problem with a site. It's not to stop fraud, or help enforce trademarks or copyrights, or people taking over expired domains and replacing them with something else.

Under the data protection acts of a number of countries, including all of Europe, Canada, Australia, and others, it's possible that the use of whois information in ways other than for which it was collected may just violate those laws.

Here's the Wall Street Journal's take on this change by ICANN:

Should Owners of Web Sites Be Anonymous?

I know people who have been afraid to post their address information into whois not because they want to defraud anyone, but instead because they are worried about their privacy.
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Old 05-10-2006   #8
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I'm the first to admit that I'm not the brightest carrot in the garden but I've always had extreme difficulty understanding why, just because this is technology related, this issue is such an issue in the first place.

To my mind, there is no good reason for new laws, governing bodies, class action suits and supreme court rulings, (not to mention forum discussions). I don't understand why "web" property is any different than any other kind of property, (except that those who saw loopholes and weaknesses first were able to position themselves to extreme financial advantage), and why the laws in place to protect certain rights would not apply likewise.

As referenced in that article, there are certainly things that need to be addressed in the interest of the common good, BUT, that is what things like probable cause and needing to obtain a warrant from a judge were for. Why do those things not apply simply because we are not talking about your person, your car or your home, rather we are talking about your "web" properties.

Surely, no one would support allowing terrorists to wreak havoc by lying about their domain registration, but allowing a self-serving commercial entity, (is there any other kind?), to be the ones deciding who's privacy is free to be violated AND get to decide the justification when there is obvious financial reward, (and little else in the way of redeeming social value), to the commercial entity seems constitutionally contradictory. I don't really understand why it is even considered. I don't understand why the constitution doesn't apply without the need to "explore" questions.

But hey, that's just me.

So, I say, if I want your name, company name, address, phone number, server location and DNS of every web property you are associated with, as well as the same for key people in your organization, I should have to show just cause and/or provide a warrant before I can expect to see that type of information no matter my motivation for wanting it.

If one would agree that at least SOUNDS reasonable, wouldn't it sound reasonable in respect to Google as well?

Last edited by massa : 05-10-2006 at 02:38 PM.
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Old 05-10-2006   #9
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So what about Yahoo as a domain registrar?

Excuse me folks, but YAHOO has been registering domain names for AGES. How come it's always Google, Google, Google, all the time Google, Google's the bad guy, is Google evil?

What about Yahoo? What about their track record for penalizing and banning sites? Couldn't any of that be related to domain name data?
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Old 05-10-2006   #10
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Hi Marcia,

I'd be happy to explore Yahoo!'s use of whois information, too. Or MSN's, or Ask's. If you've seen information about how Yahoo! might be using, or might be considering using, whois information to rank web sites, please feel free to share as much as you want to.

I don't think that Google is evil, or a bad guy. I'm not really fond of the way that Alexa thinks it's a great idea to display my whois information on their pages. Its definitely wasn't meant to be used in that manner.

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Old 05-10-2006   #11
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Quote:
I don't think that Google is evil, or a bad guy.
Oh, I know you don't! It's the media, with their insatiable thirst for eyeballs.

Quote:
If you've seen information about how Yahoo! might be using, or might be considering using, whois information to rank web sites, please feel free to share as much as you want to.
I've never seen anything out there about this type of issue with Yahoo, but then again, they're very tight-lipped about anything other than their financials.
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Old 05-10-2006   #12
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I checked patents and patent applications from Yahoo! to see if any of them stated that they would use whois information in any manner. I did come across a series of four patent applications from them, which all might use information from whois, or similar information for annotations across different sites owned by the same person.

Here's one of those:

Search systems and methods with integration of aggregate user annotations

The text is the same on the other three related patent applications.

Quote:
As described above, some embodiments allow the user to control whether an annotation should apply to a single page or to a group of pages (a site). In addition, in some embodiments, users might also be able to apply an annotation to all pages registered to the same domain name registrant as the rated page. The existence of a common domain name registrant may be determined using WHOIS or another similar service
Of course, they don't need to state in a patent or patent application that they are using that information to be using it in any way. But this is one potential use. Again, it's not really a use of whois data that has anything to do with getting in touch with a technical contact when there is a problem with a site.
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Old 05-11-2006   #13
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Originally Posted by Marcia
Excuse me folks, but YAHOO has been registering domain names for AGES. How come it's always Google, Google, Google, all the time Google, Google's the bad guy, is Google evil?

What about Yahoo? What about their track record for penalizing and banning sites? Couldn't any of that be related to domain name data?
I've never used Yahoo for domain registration -- do they actually handle the registration or just pass it off to someone else?

Anyway, yeah ... on the one hand, it's apparently not how the data is meant to be used. But at least they're in the domain registration business, which gives them a legitimate reason to have access to the data. Google can't say the same.

Maybe ICANN needs to be pickier about who it accredits as a registrar. (Come to think of it, that's a good idea....)
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