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WHOIS is a TCP-based query/response protocol which is widely used for querying an official database in order to determine the owner of a domain name, an IP address, or an autonomous system number on the Internet. WHOIS lookups were traditionally made using a command line interface, but a number of simplified web-based tools now exist for looking up domain ownership details from different databases. Web-based WHOIS clients still rely on the WHOIS protocol to connect to a WHOIS server and do lookups, and command-line WHOIS clients are still quite widely used by system administrators.
The WHOIS system originated as a method that system administrators could use to look up information to contact other IP address or domain name administrators (almost like a "white pages"). The use of the data that is returned from query responses has evolved from those origins into a variety of uses, both altruistic (such as a Certificate Authority validating the registration for ecommerce https) and nefarious (such as bulk unsolicited email campaigns). Due to the potential vulnerability of WHOIS information to improper manipulation, the legal owner of the domain is considered to be whoever controls the domain's username/passwords, billing options and administrative features.
WHOIS has a sister protocol standard called RWhois. 'WHOIS' is not an acronym; rather, it is pronounced "who is".
Thin and thick lookups
There are two ways that WHOIS information may be stored: "thick" or "thin".
The thick model usually ensures consistent data and slightly faster lookups (since only one WHOIS server needs to be contacted). If a registrar goes out of business, a thick registry contains all important information (if the registrant entered correct data, and privacy features were not used to obscure the data) and ownership can be retained. But with a thin registry, the contact information may not be available (unless adequately escrowed) and it may be difficult for the rightful registrant to retain control of the domain.
If a WHOIS client does not he WHOIS client understood how to deal with this situation, it would display the full information from the registrar. Unfortunately, there is no standard in the WHOIS protocol for determining how to distinguish the thin model from the thick model.
Exact implementation of which records are stored varies between domain name registries. Some top-level domains, including .com and .net, operate a thin WHOIS, allowing the various domain registrars the ability to maintain their own customers' data. Other registries, including .org, operate a thick model.
Normally the contact information of the individual owner is returned. However, some registrars offer "private registration", in which case the contact information of the registrar is shown instead.
Some registry operators are "wholesale"; they typically sell .com and other domain names to a large number of "retail" registrars, who in turn sell them to consumers. For private registration, only the identity of the wholesale registrar may be returned. In this case, the identity of the individual as well as the "retail registrar" may be hidden.
(No reference on ICAAN rules regarding 1) whether the retail or wholesale registrar is considered to be the owner, and 2) which registrar is returned on a WHOIS.)
Below is an example of WHOIS data returned for an individual owner. This is the result of a WHOIS query on wikipedia.org:
Domain ID:D51687756-LROR Domain Name:WIKIPEDIA.ORG Created On:13-Jan-2001 00:12:14 UTC Last Updated On:01-Mar-2006 12:39:33 UTC Expiration Date:13-Jan-2015 00:12:14 UTC Sponsoring Registrar:Go Daddy Software, Inc. (R91-LROR) Status:CLIENT DELETE PROHIBITED Status:CLIENT RENEW PROHIBITED Status:CLIENT TRANSFER PROHIBITED Status:CLIENT UPDATE PROHIBITED Registrant ID:GODA-09495921 Registrant Name:Wikimedia Foundation Registrant Organization:Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Registrant Street1:204 37th Ave N, #330 Registrant Street2: Registrant Street3: Registrant City:St. Petersburg Registrant State/Province:Florida Registrant Postal Code:33704 Registrant Country:US Registrant Phone:+1.7272310101 Registrant Phone Ext.: Registrant FAX: Registrant FAX Ext.: Registrant Email:email@example.com Admin ID:GODA-29495921 Admin Name:Jimmy Wales Admin Organization:Wikimedia Foundation Admin Street1:204 37th Ave. N. #330 Admin Street2: Admin Street3: Admin City:St. Petersburg Admin State/Province:Florida Admin Postal Code:33704 Admin Country:US Admin Phone:+1.7276441636 Admin Phone Ext.: Admin FAX: Admin FAX Ext.: Admin Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Tech ID:GODA-19495921 Tech Name:Jason Richey Tech Organization:Wikimedia Foundation Tech Street1:19589 Oneida Rd. Tech Street2: Tech Street3: Tech City:Apple Valley Tech State/Province:California Tech Postal Code:92307 Tech Country:US Tech Phone:+1.7604869194 Tech Phone Ext.: Tech FAX: Tech FAX Ext.: Tech Email:email@example.com Name Server:NS0.WIKIMEDIA.ORG Name Server:NS1.WIKIMEDIA.ORG Name Server:NS2.WIKIMEDIA.ORG
Querying Regional Internet Registries
Whois servers belonging to Regional Internet Registries(RIR) can be queried to determine the Internet Service Provider responsible for a particular IP address.
These servers are:
The records of each of these registries are cross-referenced, so that a query to ARIN for a record which belongs to RIPE will return a placeholder pointing to the RIPE whois server. This lets the whois user making the query know that the detailed information resides on the RIPE server.
Determining whois server by domain name
Appropriate whois server can be determined by top level domain name using whois-servers.net service. This service provides DNS aliases of whois servers.
Example: com.whois-servers.net, net.whois-servers.net, info.whois-servers.net, <your-country-code>.whois-servers.net
This service is used by GNU whois utility.
When the Internet was emerging out of the ARPANET, there was only one organization that handled all domain registrations, which was DARPA itself. The process of registration was established in RFC 920. WHOIS was standardized in the early 1980s to look-up domains, people and other resources related to domain and number registrations. Because all registration was done by one organization in that time, one centralized server was used for WHOIS queries. This made looking-up information very easy.
Early WHOIS servers were highly permissive and would allow wild-card searches. You could do a WHOIS lookup on a person's last name and get all the individual people who had a registered handle. You could do a query on a keyword and see all registered domains containing that keyword. You could even query a given administrative contact and see all domains they were associated with. Due to the advent of the commercialized Internet, multiple registrars and unethical spammers, such permissive searching is no longer available.
Responsibility of domain registration remained with DARPA as the ARPANET became the Internet during the 1980s. UUNet began offering domain registration service, however they simply handled the paperwork which they forwarded to DARPA's Network Information Center (NIC). Then the National Science Foundation directed that management of Internet domain registration would be handled by commercial, 3rd party entities. InterNIC was formed in 1993 under contract with the NSF, consisting of Network Solutions, Inc., General Atomics, and AT&T. General Atomics' contract was cancelled after several years due to performance issues.
On December 1, 1999, management of the top-level domains (TLDs) .com, .net, and .org was turned over to ICANN. At the time these popular TLDs were switched to a thin WHOIS model. Existing WHOIS clients stopped working at that time. A month later it had self-detecting CGI support so that the same program could operate a web-based WHOIS lookup, and an external TLD table to support multiple whois servers based on the TLD of the request. This eventually became the model of the modern whois client.
By 2005, there were many more generic top-level domains than there had been in the early 1980s. There are also many, many more country-code top-level domains. This has led to a complex network of domain name registrars and registrar associations, especially as the management of Internet infrastructure has become more internationalized. As such, performing a WHOIS query on a domain requires knowing the correct, authoritative WHOIS server to use. Tools to do WHOIS proxy searches have become common. Also, there is a command-line whois client called jwhois which uses a configuration file to map domain names and network blocks to their appropriate registrars.
In 2004, an IETF committee was formed to standardize a whole new way to look-up information on domain names and network numbers. The current working name for this proposed new standard is Cross Registry Information Service Protocol (CRISP).
Querying WHOIS servers
Originally the only method by which a WHOIS server could be contacted was to use a command line interface text client. In most cases this was on a Unix or Unix-like platform. The WHOIS client software was (and still is) distributed as open source. Various commercial Unix implementations may use their own implementations (for example, Sun Solaris 7 has a WHOIS client authored by Sun).
A WHOIS command line client typically has options to choose which host to connect to for whois queries, with a default whois server being compiled in. Additional options may allow control of what port to connect on, displaying additional debugging data, or changing recursion/referral behavior.
Like most TCP/IP client/server applications, a WHOIS client takes the user input and then opens an IP socket to its destination server. The WHOIS protocol is used to establish a connection on the appropriate port and send the query. The client waits for a response from the server, which it then either returns to the end-user or uses to make additional queries. .
The source package of GNU whois command-line client can be downloaded from Free Software Directory now. An imported version of this one to MS-Windows can be acquired from SourceForge.
The term "graphical client" may be a bit of a misnomer for a WHOIS client, since all the data to be derived from a WHOIS server is plain text, and the protocol is a relatively static one. There is not much interaction to do with a WHOIS server. In this context, the term "graphical client" is taken to mean a WHOIS client that runs as an application on a GUI OS and uses the OS's standard GUI for user interaction.
With the advent of the World Wide Web and especially the loosening up of the Network Solutions monopoly, looking up WHOIS information via the web has become quite common. Most early web-based WHOIS clients were merely front-ends to a command-line client, where the resulting output just got displayed on a webpage with little, if any, clean-up or formatting.
Nowadays, web based WHOIS clients usually perform the WHOIS queries directly and then format the results for display. Many such clients are proprietary, authored by domain name registrars.
The need for web-based clients came from the fact that command-line WHOIS clients largely existed only in the Unix and large computing worlds. Microsoft Windows and Macintosh computers had no WHOIS clients, so registrars had to find a way to provide access to WHOIS data for potential customers. Many end-users still rely on such clients, even though command line and graphical clients exist now for most home PC platforms.
CPAN has several Perl modules available that work with WHOIS servers. Many of them are not current and do not fully function with the current (2005) WHOIS server infrastructure. However, there is still much useful functionality to derive including looking up AS numbers and registrant contacts.
Accuracy of Information
In cases where the individual's identity is public, an owner can easily confirm his or her ownership of a domain by sending a WHOIS request.
In the case of "private registration," confirming ownership may be more difficult. If an owner has purchased a domain name and wants to verify that the "retailer" has indeed completed the registration process, three steps may be required: 1) perform a WHOIS and confirm that the name is at least registered with ICANN, 2) determine the name of the wholesale registrar, and 3) contact the wholesaler and obtain the name of the retail registrar. This provides some confidence that the retailer actually purchased the name for the individual. But if the registrar goes out of business, such as the failure of RegisterFly in 2007, the rightful owners of domains with privacy-protected registrations may have difficulty retaining domain administration. The end user of "private registration" can attempt to protect themselves by using a registrar that places customer data in escrow with a third party.
ICANN requires that each domain name registrant be given the opportunity to correct any inaccurate contact data associated with a domain. For this reason, the registrar is required to periodically send the owner the contact information on record for verification. (No reference for ICAAN rules on verification.)
Law and policy
WHOIS has generated policy issues in the United States federal government. As noted above, WHOIS creates a privacy issue which is also tied to free speech and anonymous speech. However, WHOIS is an important tool for law enforcement officers investigating violations like spam and phishing to track down the owners of domain names. Law enforcement officers become frustrated when WHOIS records are filled with rubbish. As a result, law enforcement agencies have sought to make WHOIS records both open and verified: