Verio Inc., Englewood, CO, yesterday agreed to stop using Register.com’s online database of customers for marketing purposes while it awaits a court decision.
Register.com, New York, a registrar of Web names, filed a complaint this month in federal court against Verio, accusing the Web-hosting company of making telemarketing calls and sending postal mail and e-mail pitches to its customers. Register.com tells its customers that the data they supply will not be used for marketing purposes unless they grant permission.
The case is complicated because the data in a Web registrar’s customer file, called a “whois” database, are available to the public, according to rules established by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which oversees the registrars.
Although ICANN crafted some guidelines for the use of the data, the whois is accessible to anyone who can get on the Internet. The data includes names, phone numbers and addresses of the people and companies that have registered Web domain names.
Alan Davidson, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said he thinks the Register.com-Verio dispute could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to controversy over the use of whois databases.
“We don’t think people should have to sacrifice their privacy just to register a domain name,” he said. “In a lot of cases, these are individuals or small businesses — people for whom providing a phone number or a home address can be very revealing. This case shows some of the risks of having a completely open whois.”
Register.com filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Shonna Keogan, a Register.com spokeswoman, said Register.com held informal discussions with Verio about the matter several times before filing the complaint.
“A major part of the problem is that they are leaving the customer with the impression that they are doing this with our knowledge and consent,” she said.
According to Keogan, Verio had been contacting Register.com’s customers as soon as their information was posted in the whois database. She said Verio stopped sending them e-mails after Register.com asked Verio to stop contacting its customers, but Verio continued to make telemarketing calls to the customers.
“We have received literally hundreds of complaints, and we can only imagine that that there must be hundreds if not thousands more who haven’t complained,” Keogan said. “[Our customers] must think that this is the way we do business, and that’s very damaging to the trust that we have with them.”
She said Verio — which has applied to become a registrar itself but has not been accredited yet, according to information on ICANN’s Web site — was able to leverage its technological sophistication to tap into Register.com’s whois database at the “root.” Normally Internet users only have access to one domain registrant at a time.
Although there have been a few other incidents of companies marketing to registrars’ whois databases, other registrars said they have not experienced such problems.
Barry Fellman, vice president at Signature Domains Inc., Miami, said his company has not encountered unauthorized use of the data from its whois database. He said that anyone who conducts a search of its whois database is shown a usage agreement explaining that the data is not to be used for sending unsolicited advertising and that it cannot be manipulated, compiled or repackaged.
“We believe protecting customer information is part of good customer service,” he said.