How to Find Out Who Owns a Domain Name Using WHOIS

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Find Out Important Website Information with WHOIS. alengo/E+/Getty Images

WHOIS is a system that all domain name owners, website manager, and social media marketing managers should have some familiarity with. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT an acronym. It is simply WHOIS, something that answers the most basic of online questions: who is responsible for a particular domain name or IP address?

Anyone who registers a domain name, be they individuals, businesses, not-profit organizations, governments etc.

is obliged to provide contact information that identifies them as its owner. The basics include:

  • Personal and/or business name
  • Business (physical) address
  • E-mail address
  • Phone number
  • Administrative and technical contacts.

In this article, we'll look at what WHOIS is, how WHOIS is used, and some of the privacy issues associated with domain name ownership in an increasingly digitized world.

A Brief History of WHOIS

WHOIS can be traced back to 1982 when the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) introduced a protocol (directory service) for ARPANET users (note: ARPANET can be considered the predecessor of today's Internet). From humble beginnings, the role of WHOIS has grown with the Internet to service the needs of individuals, businesses, registers (see below), owners of intellectual property and trademarks, and increasingly governments and law enforcement agencies (see Uses of WHOIS).

Nature of WHOIS

WHOIS is not a centralized database. Instead, the information you provide is managed by a group of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)-approved registrars. These registrars (or registries) have special responsibilities, and their accreditation allows them to operate top-level domains like .org and .com.

For example, the company from whom you purchased a domain name is according to ICANN, obliged to “implement measures to maintain timely, unrestricted and public access to accurate and complete WHOIS information....” This is why you receive annual reminders to confirm the accuracy of your information: registrars must provide public access to data on registered names. You are also expected to update your contact information whenever it changes. The public is allowed to use the WHOIS protocol to search its database and identify the registered name holder or “registrant” of a domain name.

How to access WHOIS (Performing Look-ups)

Like Google and other search engines, all you have to do to use WHOIS is visit http://whois.icann.org, enter a domain, and click "Lookup." WHOIS records on the ICANN website are relatively straightforward. The raw data is indexed by contact data (i.e. registrant, administrative, technical) and includes other details like Registrar, Domain Status, and Important Dates.

Uses of WHOIS

In accordance with ICANN agreements, WHOIS can be used for lawful purposes and thus excludes spam, automated querying of registries, and all unethical marketing practices. Along with domain name identification, it can be used:

  • By network administrators and others to find and fix system problems and maintain Internet stability.
  • For determining the availability of domain names.
  • To counter spamming or fraud and identify trademark infringements
  • To Enhance accountability of domain name registrants.

WHOIS data can be used to track and identify suspicious registrants who are posting illegal content (e.g. child pornography) or involved in phishing scams.

WHOIS and Privacy

Some registrars offer individual domain name holders a proxy or privacy service that shields owner information from public view. In many cases, it is understandable that people do not want their information exposed.

However, personal anonymity is not guaranteed, because a registrar's legal requirements may demand that they share the true identity of the registrant regardless of any privacy request. 

U.S. and Canadian laws, for example, are increasingly moving towards limiting WHOIS access to your identity. On the other hand, registries or registrars in countries whose privacy laws prohibit the collection and publishing of personal data are not obliged to break said laws to satisfy WHOIS. They are also eligible to apply to ICANN for a WHOIS waiver.

Conclusion

WHOIS plays a vital role in maintaining the stability and health of the Internet. Making it all the more astonishing that so few people are aware of it in today's increasingly digitally-based economy. Beyond your annual information confirmation which may only require clicking a link, take a bit of time to investigate what ICANN has in store for this service in the coming years.