Coalition of free-speech and anti-harassment campaigners, led by the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, calls for internet governing body not to enact proposal.

A coalition of anti-harassment initiatives and digital rights organisations is fighting a proposal from the internet’s governing body, Icann, to strip anonymity from website owners.

Icann’s plan is to require all website owners who use their domains for commercial purposes to provide a direct contact address for their registration records, known as the Whois record. At the moment many use privacy-protecting services, where often the domain name registration company’s details are given instead. If implemented, the proposal would effectively end the ability to run a commercial website without revealing significant personal information such as business address and real name.

In an open letter penned by the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative (OAPI)‘s Randi Harper and four other activists, the signatories argue that the move will physically endanger many domain owners and disproportionately impact those who come from marginalised communities”.

Specifically, they argue that the proposals will make it easier to dox” and swat” people online.

Doxing refers to the practice of uncovering personal information about someone online, sometimes with the intent to carry out further harassment, and sometimes simply to publish the information.

Swatting, in turn, refers to the practice of using personal information to place hoax calls with law enforcement with the intention of bringing down a squad of armed police. The practice is common among gaming communities, from which the four founding members of OAPI were drawn.

Our concern about doxing is not hypothetical. Randi Harper, a technologist, anti-harassment activist, and founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, was swatted based on information obtained from the Whois record for her domain. The only reason law enforcement did not draw their weapons and break down Harper’s door was that she had previously warned her local police department about swatting.”

The OAPI’s letter has now been signed by more than 30 separate organisations drawn from a whole host of areas. Internet freedom organisations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which spoke out against the proposal independently last week); the Tor project; and Fight for the Future have signed. So too have domestic violence charities such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Centre on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

A number of other organisations with an interest in protecting at-risk communities online back the campaign, including the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Jewish Women International and Internet Democracy Project, India.

In a personal capacity, the campaign has also been backed by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, writer Cory Doctorow, and former American football player (and major Warcraft fan) Chris Kluwe.

Harper says she’s been humbled” by the support.

We knew that between all of the original authors, we would be able to drum up a good amount of people that would be interested in signing. It’s rare to see anti-abuse organisations standing on the same side of an argument as free speech advocates, but this is an issue that has the potential to affect everyone. We know for certain that Icann has been watching this letter, and I think it’s going to have a lot of impact,” she told the Guardian.

The campaign in favour of Icann’s proposal has been backed by a coalition of copyright industry bodies, including the Recording Industry Association of America, Motion Picture Association of America and Entertainment Software Association, the last of which represents the gaming industry in the US. Through their lobby group, the Coalition for Online Accountability, the organisations argue that proxy registrations are abused to protect those who infringe copyright online.

The Coalition for Online Accountability’s Steven Metalitz told Congress: While there is a legitimate role for proxy registrations in limited circumstances, the current system is manipulated to make it impossible to identify or contact those responsible for abusive domain name registrations.”

Meanwhile, Harper told the Guardian that more should be done to hold the internet governing body to account. Icann is a strange beast that doesn’t get a lot of attention from the public,” she said. We had only found out about this proposal the day before EFF commented on it, and not a lot of people were talking.

I’m really not sure why we’ve been ignoring Icann. They’ve made some spectacularly horrific decisions lately, such as introducing the .sucks TLD, which is now selling domain names at $2,500 – basically endorsing extortion and creating an industry around abuse.

I think that it’s time that we start paying attention to this organisation that has a huge amount of power in defining the way the internet works.”

Originally published in The Guardian.