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Lawyers who guard corporate trademarks may soon have a harder time tracking down the people behind Web sites that infringe on their clients’ brands. The organization that polices the domain-name system is likely to decide this year � after several years of debate � to adopt a new policy that would let Web site owners keep most of their contact information confidential when they register a domain name. The board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers may act on the issue as early as June, according to attorneys involved in the process. The current system displays owners’ names and contact information in the “Whois” online directory. Companies with well-known names use Whois to stop illicit use of their trademarks online. They would like to maintain as much disclosure as possible. But privacy advocates say that Web site owners should be able to keep their contact information under wraps and that stricter privacy laws outside the United States lean toward greater confidentiality. In 2005, law enforcement authorities investigated 97,100 U.S. complaints of Internet fraud, which cost victims $183 million, a monetary toll that has risen more than tenfold since 2000, the FBI said in its most recent report. ICANN is considering three options: continue to make domain-name owners’ personal, technical, and administrative contact information available to all Internet users; allow owners to cloak contact information only if there’s a risk to personal safety; or display only a name and country and allow the owner to designate a separate point of contact. As the system works now, says Steven Weinberg of the Santa Monica, Calif., office of Greenberg Traurig, he often uses the Whois information to make a direct plea to a Web site owner. For instance, when Anheuser-Busch found in the mid-1990s that someone had registered a site with the name “Budweiser,” Weinberg met with the owner and persuaded him to give up the domain name in exchange for free beer, Budweiser mousepads, and a refrigerator in the shape of a Budweiser can. Weinberg would prefer to settle such matters through a conversation � although companies can also sue under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act or petition an international arbitration body to remove the name. EBay uses the Whois information 100 times a day to contact and stop Web sites from using its name without permission, says Steven Metalitz of the D.C. office of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. Metalitz sits on the ICANN council as a representative of corporate interests. Speed in resolving such matters is key, attorneys say. Clients can lose money and consumers can be harmed as long as an infringing site is available. Delay in contacting a Web site owner is the main reason that IP attorneys oppose moving to a go-between system, says Metalitz. But delay should not become an argument against a system that preserves privacy rights, says Robin Gross of the civil liberties group IP Justice in San Francisco. There are judicial routes in the United States for gaining access to a domain-name owner’s identity, and they are supposed to be difficult, she says. The nations of the European Union have much stricter privacy laws than the United States, Gross also notes. ICANN’s authority in this matter could be eroded, she warns, if people start taking the issue into the courts of those countries. Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, says allowing domain-name owners to keep their contact information private is no different from letting people have unlisted phone numbers.
Lynne Marek is a reporter at The National Law Journal , an ALM publication based in New York City where this article first ran.

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