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Search engines and privacy

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 22, 2004
(Issue 2221, Windows' Hidden Gems)

A new search engine from and a new "private registry" feature from Network Solutions are raising some interesting questions about the intersections of openness and privacy on the 'Net.

The new A9 search engine includes some interesting, even useful features not currently found in one package elsewhere.

While already has a fairly popular search site in its Alexa search tool, the Alexa searches are powered by Google. A9 seems to be proprietary – at least, the A9 site doesn't contain any of the usual "powered by Google" disclaimers.

But what Alexa had that A9 keeps is a "Site info" feature that includes both traffic information and Whois contact information for the domain registrant.

Which means that if you did a search for me, one of the first sites to come up on the search results would be my site, And until a few weeks ago, the Alexa "Site info" page for included my home phone number – which is unlisted.

So how did they get it?

From the Whois directory at Network Solutions, where I registered (and, which is home to an arts and literary magazine I publish).

Now, that information had been online for four or five years. Anyone who did a Whois search could have found out how to contact me – by mail, e-mail or phone.

That's one of the ground rules the federal government laid down when the Internet was first opened to the public in the early 1990s: The Internet is a publicly owned commons and if you want to register a domain, then the public has a fundamental interest in knowing who you are.

Which I don't actually have a problem with.

I mean, I've already ID'd myself to the feds for my Social Security Number, to get a Pentagon security clearance for a tech writing job I did a few years back, and when I was in Air Force ROTC in college. And the state knows me for my voting registration, my driver's license, car registration, my kids' school enrollment, etc.

But there's a difference between identifying yourself to the government in order to obtain a stake on the electronic frontier, and having every two-bit telemarkter and spammer able to access that information from a Web search tool.

True, the Whois database is searchable – but mining that database can't be automated. Do a Whois search on my registration service sites, and you have to type in a word shown in a graphic – so robots can't simply go to domain after domain and build a database for the spammers.

But the Alexa, and now A9, search engines lay out that info in a way that any half-decent programmer can easily take advantage of.

Alexa never had too much traffic – at least, I never got hammered with much spam or telemarketing, none that I could attribute to the Whois directory info, anyway.

But with A9 poised for a major marketing push, I decided I didn't want my home number and e-mail listed.

So I went back to Network Solutions, and upgraded my account to the private registration status. It cost me $5 per domain, and I also had to go back to and update my account to remove the phone number and e-mail, but I do feel a bit more secure now. (Other domain registry companies are also now offering the private registration, and are likely similarly priced.)

As for A9 itself

Will A9 make any traction in the market?

Who knows? With Yahoo and MSN both gearing up new technology and new campaigns to try to pry some business away from Google, it's getting pretty crowded with big-money players. (Plus second-tier search engines like AskJeeves, Lycos, AltaVista and even AOL's in-house search engine are also still on the scene.) But has brand recognition almost on a par with Yahoo and Google, so by plastering links to A9 all over its site, may be able to earn a significant slice of the search engine pie.

A9 has an Internet Explorer toolbar similar to Google's that you can download and use, which allows you to search within a site instead of across the Web.

The search results seem pretty consistent with the other major search engines, so the technology seems pretty sound. There are sponsored links, as with most of the search engines, that appear at the top of your results, but they're adequately labeled so you know what you're getting.

Other cool features, although they seem spotty across platforms and browsers, include the ability to see the "Site info" results directly from the search page by hovering your cursor over the Site info button.

There are some features that may raise the hackles of privacy hounds – a "search history" if you create a free account with A9, for instance. Useful, but who gets access to it?

A9 was still in beta as this was written, so some of the above features may change by the time it goes to full launch.

Regardless, I've locked down my personal contact info in their database. If you have a domain, you might want to do so as well.