Technology & Science

Canadian internet registry moves to protect privacy

Sweeping changes to Canada's home on the web will put the country on the vanguard of internet privacy.

Sweeping changes to Canada's home on the World Wide Web will put the country on the vanguard of internet privacy.

But while law enforcement isn't happy about potentially losing an important investigative tool, the half-million Canadians whose personal information is currently publicly available on the internet shouldn't rest easy that they are safe from wired snoops.

It's long been standard for website registrars to publicly provide detailed contact information for individuals who own domain names under dot-ca and dot-com through an easy internet search called a Whois (pronounced who-is).

The Canada Internet Registration Authority says it will buck the trend by June 10, instituting new privacy policies that will protect private information from roaming eyes.

The existing Whois system provides the domain owner's name, home address, phone number and e-mail.

It's a treasure trove for spammers, said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law.

"We're talking about one of the largest freely available online directories of personal information in the country," he said.

Domain registration growing daily

Domain names, heralded as the real estate of the 21st century, are becoming commonplace for a generation of computer-savvy Canadians eager to own their own spot on the web.

The number of Canadian domain names hit the one million mark in April, and has been increasing by about 650 each day since then.

About 70 per cent of those are owned by upwards of 600,000 Canadians, says the registration authority.

"This will put us at the forefront of individual privacy protection in the world," said Byron Holland, president of the authority.

Canada's 2004 Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act didn't exist when the first dot-ca domain name, upei.ca, was registered by the University of Prince Edward Island in 1988.

The law regulates how private-sector organizations collect, use and disclose personal information in the course of commercial business.

Holland said the changes to the Whois will bring the registration authority in line with the legislation.

"It's [currently] consistent with the letter of the law, because it's made clear that information is released, but I don't believe it's consistent with the spirit of the law."

Privacy vs. policing

Geist said the changes have raised the ire of law enforcement and intellectual property lawyers, who have used the Whois search to track down sexual predators and copyright violators.

"They've sought to maintain the status quo though it arguably violates privacy legislation."

But he said bringing the internet authority's policies in line with the law on June 10 will let potential whistleblowers — or those worried their political blog postings will lead to a home visit from a dissatisfied internet user — breathe a little easier, Geist said.

Knowing that such personal information is currently available with a few clicks of a mouse has created a quandary for privacy seekers, he said.

"Those who criticize a company or their own employer [on their own website] often do it at great personal risk," he said.

"They're between a rock and a hard place: If they post accurate information they get to keep the domain but may suffer consequences at work, but if they post fake information they may be safe at work but they run the risk of losing the domain."

Canadians who already own domain names won't enjoy the same luxury of privacy right away. Given that their Whois data is already available on third-party websites, there's little the registration authority can do to rein in that information.

Holland says it's not a cause for concern, as any edits made to existing information after June 10 won't be publicly available.

Change could spur ownership of .ca sites

There's also little risk of the dot-ca becoming a place for the rest of the world to stash its electronic dirty laundry, Geist said.

Only Canadian residents or companies can register the unique domain names, and personal information will still be collected and available to the registration authority.

Domain names also have the potential to be extremely valuable as online advertising revenue rises into the billions. Ownership of the lucrative domain name sex.com, for example, went for a record $12 million in 2006.

While the internet authority's change is unlikely to make anyone rich, the president of the authority said Canadians' predilection for privacy means they may begin to snap up dot-ca domains instead of the generic dot-com.

"Given that we will be the world leader in the space, absolutely, it'll make Canadians more likely to choose a dot-ca [versus other domains]," said Holland.

The change won't affect businesses and organizations, which will still have their information publicly available.

Dot-ca is a country code, and Canada owns all names that end with .ca. It costs about $10 per year to register a domain.

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