Google Whos Information Used For Other Purposes

By: Danny Wirken

Go Daddy's Patents

A recent trio of patents published last May 4, 2006 by Go Daddy has lead people to speculate on whether Google is using Who Is information for other purposes such as improving their ranking mechanism. The patents by Go Daddy all had the same description and in essence explored the possibility of adding additional information in the WhoIs database in which the additional information can be used to improve search engine results and help combat various forms of Internet abuse like spamming and phishing. The three patents, whose inventors are Warren Adelman and Michael Chadwick, are as follows:

&bull Publishing domain name related reputation in WhoIs records (US Patent Application 20060095459)
&bull Tracking domain name related reputation (US Patent Application 20060095586)
&bull Presenting search engine results based on domain name related reputation (US Patent Application 20060095404)

Google's Patents

Although Google has nothing to do with Go Daddy's patents, a patent of their own filed in December of 2003 and published last March 31, 2005 has raised some eyebrows and made people wonder whether they are indeed using WhoIs information in the way that Go Daddy's patents suggest they could. The patent Information retrieval based on historical data (US Patent Application 20050071741) stated that "systems and methods...may score documents based, at least in part, on history data associated with the documents. This scoring may be used to improve search results generated in connection with a search query." The history data indicated in the Google's patent description just might be, according to speculation, the additional data or information that can be added to the WhoIs database that the Go Daddy's patent is speaking of. This makes sense since the use of both information or data is consistent with each other in that the history data that will be used in scoring documents in turn would help improve relevancy of search engine results.

Issue of Privacy

The improved search results are of course not a problem for Google users since they will benefit from it. However it is not the improved results that are raising eyebrows, rather privacy matters is what's under question. People have always been concerned about their privacy and many see the additional data to be added to the WhoIs database as unnecessary and furthermore the use of such information to be a step towards invading their privacy. It is actually ironic that just recently an article appeared on CircleID which mentions that there is an emerging strong feeling among people that there should be less access to WhoIs information, and yet it is also around this time that the Go Daddy's patent on other possible uses of the WhoIs information was published and emerged.

GNSOs Definition of WhoIs Purpose

Discussions regarding the possible use of WhoIs information for other purposes by Google could, however, be pointless due to a recent vote made by ICANN's Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) Council regarding the purpose of WhoIs and thus the use of WhoIs information as well.

To come up with a definition for the purpose of WhoIs a WhoIs Task Force was formed with the two primary responsibilities of defining the purpose of WhoIs service in context with ICANN's mission and relevant core values and to define the purpose of the Registered Name Holder, technical, and administrative contacts, in the context of the purpose of WhoIs, and the purpose for which the data was collected. The task force then developed the definition from July to November of 2006 and finally submitted two definitions of the purpose for WhoIs, which was put up for further discussion. The two definitions according to the Preliminary task force report on the purpose of WhoIs and of the WhoIs contacts were:

"The purpose of the gTLD WhoIs service is to provide information sufficient to contact a responsible party for a particular gTLD domain name who can resolve, or reliably pass on data to a party who can resolve, issues related to the configuration of the records associated with the domain name within a DNS nameserver." (Definition 1)

And

"The purpose of the gTLD WhoIs service is to provide information sufficient to contact a responsible party or parties for a particular gTLD domain name who can resolve, or reliably pass on data to a party who can resolve, technical, legal or other issues related to the registration or use of a domain name." (Definition 2)

After much discussion a majority vote of 2/3 of the GNSO Council finally voted on Definition 1 as the definition of the purpose for WhoIs. The definition was supported by was supported by the registries, registrars, the three Nomination Committee appointees, and the noncommercial users (NCUC) while the Business, Intellectual Property, and ISP constituencies did not agree.

The US Government expressed displeasure with the final decision unsurprisingly since the definition restricts their ability to use WhoIs information for other purposes as well. In the discussion NCUC even expressly stated that one of the excluded or invalid purposes of WhoIs is to "expand the surveillance powers given to law enforcement under law, or to bypass the protections and limitations imposed by sovereign governments to prevent the abuse and misuse of personal data, even by law enforcement."

It was not explicitly statements though against using WhoIs information for search engine results optimization and for combating Internet fraud. That is not to say though that it is in line with the defined purpose, since it is not. However, there might yet be hope that Google can continue such use of WhoIs information (if they are using it in that way) since the definition of purpose can eventually be expanded to fit that use if ICANN decides that it would still be in line with their core values. As the registry constituency said in their discussion regarding the purpose of WhoIs "The WhoIs function had one original purpose...[but now] has additional purposes that have arisen from the change of character of the Internet." They acknowledge the change in purpose but the statement was said with illegal or criminal activities in mind and the need to change the WhoIs function to combat such activities and yet preserve the individual's privacy. Go Daddy's patent explicitly stated that WhoIs information could be used to combat such activities and since the use is noble and not aimed to divulge any information for the whole world to see then there could be hope for their proposed use of WhoIs information. As for Google, we just have to wait and see if improving ranking mechanisms will be seen by ICANN as a justifiable use of such information.

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