could domain privacy help you?One of the first things you need in order to have a website is a domain name. While you can opt to use the free domain name your web builder provides, purchasing a domain name is likely a better option, especially if you’re using the site to run a business. Although having a domain name has some major perks like the ability to build a brand and boosting your brand’s SEO, one downside of purchasing a domain is you’re required to register a lot of your personal information, including your name, email, address and phone number, with your domain. In the earliest days of the Internet, there was no way to opt out of providing this information, but now users have an alternative through a feature called domain privacy, which is offered by some web hosting and website building services. Below we go into detail about how domain registration works and why you might want to consider adding this feature to your domain name.

Why would I want domain privacy?

When you register a domain, either through a web host, website builder or other domain-providing service, these services are required to intake your information, which will remain connected to the domain, by an entity known as ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). You can think of ICANN as the rule maker of the Internet; it’s the regulating body that establishes what constitutes appropriate behavior around domain usage and domain distribution. Once collected, your personal information – name, email, address and phone number – is inputted into a database known as WHOIS (pronounced “who is”) which can be publicly searched, like the Whitepages.

The reasons WHOIS exists are historical in nature, originating from how the Internet was navigated by its very first users. While accurate WHOIS information might compromise privacy, it allows for both law enforcement and everyday users to identify cybercriminals (assuming the domain isn’t private) and hold real people accountable for their content and actions online. As such, it’s been difficult for anyone to articulate a vision for what the future of WHOIS should look like. There are currently ongoing discussions among ICANN and other stakeholders about overhauling the WHOIS system to balance privacy with the benefits the database provides, but until that happens, users are stuck with the current domain registration process. As a result, domain registering services are offering the ability to “shield” the personal information on WHOIS with domain privacy features.

How does domain privacy work?

If you opt for domain privacy, the service providing it will enter its information into WHOIS in lieu of your own. You’ll still have to provide your personal details to whatever service you’re enrolling with, but any WHOIS search for your domain will only turn up your domain provider’s contact information. There are limits to what domain privacy can hide, though. For example, if your domain provider is issued a court order or you’ve engaged in illegal activity, law enforcement has the right to request your personal information from your domain host. The terms of service for any domain provider should state this. Since domain privacy is an add-on feature, some services charge for it — for example, GoDaddy charges $5.99/year — while others don’t. Essentially, the price of this feature is at the discretion of each service, so if you consider domain privacy to be important, the price of this add-on should be a major factor in choosing which services you want to go with.

Given both the pricing and perceived convolutedness of domain privacy, one thing some people wonder is why they can’t simply lie on domain registration forms. The penalties for doing this vary wildly, but if for whatever reason you need to be contacted and your information is invalid, ICANN reserves the right to ask your domain provider to delete your domain. While you might not expect to be contacted, some domain dealers often reach out to domain owners to see if they can purchase their domain. If the dealers suspect your information is false, all they have to do is report you to ICANN in order for the domain to be revoked and available for purchase at standard domain rates. Similarly, law enforcement does not like false information on WHOIS, and while there’s currently no legal penalty for lying, the U.S. House of Representatives has in the past attempted to introduce legislation to make placing false information illegal. Amid the various debates regarding the role of government in monitoring technology, it’s expected that such a proposition will likely be brought up again in the future.

Are there any downsides to domain privacy?

If you’re running a site for a noted or large scale brand, having domain privacy active might look suspicious – for some people, it simply comes across as you having something to hide. On the other hand, if you’re running a small personal site or an on-the-side business, domain privacy is usually perceived more positively. Keep the purpose of your site and how important transparency is to your audience in mind when you determine whether or not to opt for domain privacy.

Something else to be aware of is that domain privacy scams exist. Here’s how they usually work: an illegitimate service offers domain privacy as an add-on to your domain registration, then after you’ve signed up for the service, it’ll swap out your credentials for its, locking you out from actually owning your domain. The reason this scam works goes back to the way domain privacy functions. Services that offer domain privacy don’t actually report your information to WHOIS, they report their own information in order to protect your personal details. So from the perspective of WHOIS, it actually looks like your domain provider is the owner of your site as opposed to you. That said, any legitimate domain provider should spell out in its Terms of Use that you’re legally the owner of the domain, regardless of what information WHOIS is reported. The easiest way to avoid this scam is to use a legitimate service and read the terms of service — be sure to search for clauses that designate you as the owner of your domain when using the domain privacy feature. If a domain provider fails to state this in its terms, don’t do business with it, as it’s likely trying to scam you and steal your domain name.

If you’re interested in getting your own (private) domain, take a look at either our website building reviews or web hosting reviews to find the best option for you. For more tips on getting the most out of your web hosting experience, keep reading our web hosting blog.