More than three-quarters of Internet domain registrants have incomplete, invalid or false names. And 22 percent of website owners proved to be impossible to trace.

That's according to a survey conducted by the University of Chicago on behalf of Internet registry agency ICANN which looked at how accurate the results were for people who used the WHOIS connection to try to trace domain name holders.

The report Draft Report for the Study of the Accuracy of WHOIS Registrant Contact Information details some of the problems faced by domain name registries. ICANN said that the survey looked at three criteria for accuracy:

  1. Was the address of the registrant a valid mailing address? 
  2. Was the registrant named associated in some way with the given address? 
  3. When contacted, would the named registrant acknowledge that they were indeed the registrant of the domain name, and confirm all details given as correct and current

The survey found that only 23 percent of names and addresses were fullyaccurate (ie met all three criteria) while a staggering eight percent had no details or a patently false name, that's on top of the 14 percent whose names turned out to be uncontactable.

According to Doug Brent, ICANN's CEO the study was the first serious attempt to get to grips with WHOIS accuracy and presented a series of challenges. "Name registrations are global. Determining accuracy is more than assessing the validity of a name and address, but determining a link between the registrant and that name/address. In other words, you can have a perfectly valid name and address that isn't actually the domain name registrant"

He said that the organisation was already focusing on WHOIS accuracy and was regularly informing registrars of inaccuracies - and that ICANN had increased its resources in this area. But he said that, at present, ICANN could only go so far. "Ultimately, any solution reached for Whois accuracy must be closely tied to ICANN's contractual enforcement mechanisms which today go no further than requiring investigation of inaccuracy complaints," he said.

Brent acknowledged the problems faced. "Finding solutions for this seemingly simple problem has been a challenge for the ICANN community that has gone on for years. Inevitably, possible solutions are judged by intellectual property interests, law enforcement, privacy experts, those who use non-Latin scripts, and others, with different goals for approaches and definitions of success."

But things might be about to change. Brent thinks that the publication of the report will lead to more debate and pointed out that ICANN's Affirmation of Commitments with the US Department of Commerce specifically called for a review of WHOIS policy and enforcement as one of four key areas to be periodically reviewed for progress."

As the survey covered all geographic areas, we asked Nominet, the .uk domain registry for a comment about the implications for UK domains but it declined to comment.