Caution: Do Your Really Own Your Domain Name?

Woman Behind a Mask

You own a domain name. Great.

Did you or some­one at your orga­ni­za­tion reg­is­ter the domain name direct­ly with domain name reg­is­trar? Or did a con­sul­tant do it for you? Maybe a web host­ing com­pa­ny or mar­ket­ing firm set it up?

A domain name is like a mask. It’s your pub­lic face on the Inter­net, and someon—the owner—is behind it. You prob­a­bly think that’s you. But are you sure?

It’s worth a few min­utes to con­firm whether you real­ly own that name.

What is domain ownership?

When some­one uses a reg­is­trar to sign up for a new domain name, own­er­ship of the domain is defined by enter­ing the infor­ma­tion for three con­tacts:

  1. The Reg­is­trant: the domain’s own­er
  2. The Admin­is­tra­tor: the per­son or group that can make changes to the domain on the owner’s behalf
  3. Tech­ni­cal Con­tact: the per­son or group that tech­ni­cal­ly man­ages the domain

How things go wrong

Sounds sim­ple, right? But it’s easy to mess this up:

  • You asked a vol­un­teer or intern to reg­is­ter your domain. They used their per­son­al con­tact infor­ma­tion, not under­stand­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions.
  • Dit­to, but it was an employ­ee: maybe your techie, maybe your acci­den­tal techie, maybe your exec­u­tive direc­tor.
  • It was a con­sul­tant or web host. Maybe they didn’t think through the ram­i­fi­ca­tions, espe­cial­ly in the ear­ly days of the Inter­net. Or maybe they did, and they set it up this way to give them more con­trol over your account for bet­ter or worse.

An example

Recent­ly I noticed a prob­lem with a client’s domain name reg­is­tra­tion. The orga­ni­za­tion itself wasn’t list­ed at all in the domain name’s record. Instead, the web host­ing com­pa­ny that orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed their site over a decade ago was list­ed as the Reg­is­trant, Admin­is­tra­tor, and Tech­ni­cal Con­tact.

In oth­er words, accord­ing to our Inter­net Over­lords (all hail them, may they leave me in peace), the non­prof­it didn’t own its domain name.

A web host owned it for them.

Day-to-day that’s not a big deal. If the con­sul­tant stays in busi­ness, or the vol­un­teer keeps vol­un­teer­ing, or your acci­den­tal techie remains an employ­ee, and as long as those peo­ple still have a a good rela­tion­ship with you, every­thing should be fine.

The oper­a­tive word, of course, being “if”.

How to check

It’s easy. Bajil­lions of web­sites let you look up your domain reg­is­tra­tion record. It’s called a “whois” search (pro­nounced “who is”, not “hoys”, BTW), so just Google “whois”. I gen­er­al­ly use Net­work Solu­tions or Whois.net.

If you try one and the infor­ma­tion doesn’t seem com­plete, just try anoth­er.

What do to if it’s broke

Fix it.

If it cannot be fixed with duct tape, all is lost.

Duct tape even fix­es bro­ken domain names.

Image cred­it: andy­man­gold

The actu­al own­er of the domain should be list­ed at least as the Reg­is­trant.

List­ing your orga­ni­za­tion as the Admin­is­tra­tive and Tech­ni­cal con­tact is less essen­tial, though it can be a good idea. Whoever’s list­ed as your Admin­is­tra­tive con­tact, for exam­ple, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly has the rights to make changes to how your domain is used. If that’s a trust­ed con­sul­tant or vol­un­teer, great. If it’s your orga­ni­za­tion, more pow­er to you.

How do you make the change? Well, that depends.

  • If you can still reach the per­son who’s list­ed as Reg­is­trant or Admin­is­tra­tive Con­tact, ask them to make the change for you.
  • If you can’t reach them, or if they won’t help you, you’ll need to hope your reg­is­trar can help you sort it out. You can find your registrar’s name as “Spon­sor­ing Reg­is­trar” in your whois list­ing. Some whois lookups will make you dig a lit­tle deep­er for those details; for exam­ple, with a Net­work Solu­tions whois search you’ll need to click “Show under­ly­ing reg­istry data for this record” to see the details.

If you need a registrar’s help to sort things out, I rec­om­mend a phone call rather than an email. Things usu­al­ly just go eas­i­er that way.

Do it now

Con­firm­ing whether you real­ly own your domain name will be two min­utes well spent.

Why not spend them now?

Post image cred­it: stefan.hibl

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