The Associated Press is reporting that ICANN may consider shutting down the Whois system, which lets Internet users search for domain name registration information, because of disagreements over how it works. Privacy advocates in favor of shutting down the database feel that individuals should not be forced to give out private information -- which is then potentially available to spammers or scam artists -- in order to register a domain name on the Internet. Those who want to keep the Whois database operational, feel that it is a valuable tool for doing business and making sure you know who you are dealing with.

As the AP writes, the Whois database has many uses, "Law-enforcement officials and Internet service providers use it to fight fraud and hacking. Lawyers depend on it to chase trademark and copyright violators. Journalists rely on it to reach Web site owners. And spammers mine it to send junk mailings for Web site hosting and other services." There have also been reports that some registrars use Whois search data to register domains that could be lucrative in the domain aftermarket, a practice the New York Times likens to insider trading.

Some proponents of the "sunset" plan that would end the Whois database, don't necessarily want it shut down. Ross Rader, an executive at Tucows who is the chief sponsor of the plan, has indicated that he only wants to force discussion on the issue. "What removing the status quo will do is force all of the actors to come together without the benefit of a status quo to fall back on and say, 'We are now all screwed. What will we do?'" Rader told the AP. "It will lead to better good-faith negotiations."

My opinion is that nixing the Whois database would be a mistake. There are certainly better ways to conceal contact information, or to keep spammers from scraping the information, but the database has a lot of practical applications and is very helpful to a large number of honest users. I often use it to track down information on web site owners for stories, or to verify information about a web site I may be considering doing business with, for example. Losing it would negatively impact a substantial number of people. "The sense of shock that would settle around certain people would be rapid and immediate," said Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller. I agree.

What do you think? Do the benefits of the Whois database outweigh the potential for abuse? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.