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On your Mark, Get Set, Falsify WHOIS!

I have a one hour seminar called “On Your Mark!, Get Set! Falsify WHOIS! where I discuss the public WHOIS database, and how competitive webmasters might best approach that issue. I submitted that talk for the New York PHP Conference this past summer, but my schedule didn’t allow me to follow through. Maybe I will post it here as an article or eBook someday.

Anyway I came across an older post on Matt Cutt’s blog where he suggests web masters report missing or apparently false WHOIS data to the “authorities”. I’ve been around the SEO world for a few days, so I am quite clear on the serious conflict of interest that keeps Matt from sleeping peacefully at night. I recognize, though, that not everyone has had the opportunity to learn that about Matt.

So when Gloria posted her thoughts on merchants holding back their personally identifying information at the end of the comments on that thread, I had to respond. We can’t permit such an important topic to be closed by a heartfelt yet uninformed opinion. Poor Gloria has probably learned herself by now, but for the sake of historical clarify, I added my two cents.

Dear Gloria,

1. WHOIS data is provided to the entire world, via a widely distributed database, with no benefit provided back to the listed web master. Customer data provided via an order form on one web site is not so publicly distributed, and the information was traded to enable a transaction benefiting the consumer. In some states, that web master is also bound by law and by contract to reasonably protect the consumer’s information.

2. Customers are safe, except perhaps from the web site owner and the credit card company. A web site owner with a public WHOIS contact is not safe from any number of spammers and scam artists working the Internet, or political whackos, or religious zealots, or any other person even though the webmaster has never entered into any transaction with them. There is a very big difference.

3. I agree with those customers of yours who are afraid to use online ordering systems. However, I am often also afraid to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike during business hours – it is proven to be unsafe. Yet, in our practical world, many shoppers are probably better off trusting most apparently legitimate web site owners, and I simply have to be as careful as I can be when driving the turnpike if I want to function in this society. It is not a perfect world.

4. The customers who do what you describe – enter into private transactions with anonymous vendors – are making an error. That has nothing to do with the anonymous merchant. Just as a merchant can elect to sell goods above the suggested retail price (and some consumers will buy), a merchant can chose to operate anonymously. The drug dealer on the corner is an example of such an anonymous operator in the physical world. So is the flea market seller in many cases. People do buy from anonymous sources, on line and off line.

I applaud your consideration of this issue of anonymous WHOIS data, but I found virtually all of your thought points to be incorrect. I view that as the primary problem we have today: few web masters support a fully pubic and accurate WHOIS requirement unless they have a commercial incentive to do so (like Google’s engineers) or they are ignorant of the facts. n addition, very few consumers seem to understand their own responsibility for selecting reliable vendors, especially when they shop for price. The best work we can do is educate web masters and consumers.

Fortunately, Matt Cutts provides an opportunity to feedback such information on his blog. Otherwise, his commercial Google perspective would be the only perspective.