Since Tuesday, running a personal website has become a privacy minefield for people using .uk domain names. A recent rule change by Nominet, the company which manages the .uk registry, means that domain name owners whose home addresses were previously kept private may now be publicly visible in online searches. People setting up domain names through Nominet must now also show their full legal personal or business name on the public registration database.

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Nominet was previously liberal in allowing individuals who had registered domain names to opt out of having their postal addresses shown in WHOIS search, but now a new broader policy is being strictly enforced. It reads, in part:

Only domain name holders who are “non-trading individuals” can opt out of having their address details published on the WHOIS. In other words, if the registrant is not a business or organisation and – in the case of domain names registered to individuals – you do not use or plan to use your domain name for business, trade (such as pay-per-click advertising, etc.) or professional transactions, you may opt out of having your address display

Andrew Norton, who blogs about politics and statistics on his website at ktetch.co.uk, fell foul of this new policy in May. Nominet raised its concerns with Norton about the content of his site – he includes the email discussion on his site – and shortly afterwards revealed his home address in the public WHOIS search while the matter was still being investigated.

Norton rented a PO Box address to use as his public address while Nominet wouldn’t let him keep his details private; but the organisation has now recanted, and hidden them, presumably accepting that his site is – as he said all along – non-commercial.

Nominet’s treatment of Norton suggests that its definition of commercial and professional activity is broad and includes activities where no contracts are made or money changes hands between the website owner and their visitors.

In Norton’s case, Nominet was concerned that he included a link to Amazon for a book he’d written, a pay-per-click banner and a free email list subscription widget on his site. None of these involved Norton entering into contracts with his website visitors, nor directly receiving money from them. It’s very hard to see how any visitor to Norton’s site would be reassured to buy a book from Amazon, click a banner or sign up for a free newsletter by being able to obtain his home postal address.

Norton has made a complaint to the information commissioner over Nominet’s release of his private information.

As many internet businesses are strengthening their customers’ privacy features in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations it’s surprising to see Nominet moving in the other direction. But one clue might be in its use of language. In an email to Andrew Norton, a Nominet representative wrote:

To opt out, you must be a ‘consumer’ i.e. an individual who has registered and is using the domain name for a purpose unconnected with any business, trade (this includes the registration of domain names for monetisation purposes, e.g. pay per click advertising etc) or profession.

This unusual use of the word “consumer” suggests a binary view of the world: website owners are either businesses, or they’re customers. They’re either selling, or (potentially) buying. It’s either all business and professional content, or none at all.

But many people, Andrew Norton included, don’t fall neatly into one category or another. Many bloggers include affiliate links to related products or web hosting on their sites to try to offset their running costs but they’re not set up to be businesses or to turn a profit. And there are many professional people in full time employment who write about their profession or industry, sometimes pseudonymously. Would Nominet insist that the teacher or police officer who blogs on their own .uk domain must reveal their home address to the world?

On Twitter, the organisation has indicated that it won’t be absolute.

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