When someone registers a domain name, such as www.google.com, they must provide some personal details to the domain registration company that handles the registration for them, such as a street address, company name, phone number, e-mail address etc. This information is then stored in a centralised database, which is accessible to the entire web population via the Whois service. The lack of privacy that this system provides to the registrant is the topic of much discussion, and due to this lack of protection of such sensitive information, many registrants are not always truthful with the information that they provide to their domain registrar companies, of which there are currently about 93 worldwide.
The centralised Whois database can be accessed through most registrars websites. The people responsible for over seeing this system, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), require that a full set of details be provided for every domain name that is registered.
The Internet, in it's current form, is overrun by "spamers" and fraudsters of every kind, from the comical to the downright dangerous, and as a result the freedom of such information really needs to be brought into question. For example, many registrar companies actually sell this information on to marketing companies for additional revenue.
As anyone who has ever ran a website will tell you, the frequency of so-called "spam-mail" to your e-mail account grows exponentially upon registering a domain name. Is the Whois database partly responsible by publishing practically every webmaster's e-mail address on the planet?
Network Solutions (which is now Verisign) used to have the exclusive rights to the entire domain name system. In 1999, ICANN opened up the sector to competition, and as a result Verisign lost their monopoly. However, Verisign still maintains the Whois database, and still registers sites that end with the .com, .net and .org extension.
ICANN's contract with Verisign was revised last year to oblige Verisign to design and maintain a truly universal database of domain names, one that includes the newer domain names such as those ending in .biz, .pro and .info. This database would also include top-level domain names that are country specific, such as .ie for Ireland and .co.uk for the UK, of which there are 243 in total.
All of this would allow a user to search for personal details on the registrant of a domain name from anywhere on the planet, all from a single centralised location. This project has already been started by Verisign, who are committed to having the database up and running by the 31st of December, 2002.
Any form that has ever been filled out, be it on paper or on the Internet, is only valid if all of the information provided on that form is truthful. A universal database of falsified information is by definition redundant. As a useful project, it's credentials are somewhat lessened by this fact. After all, why should an individual provide such details for the World to see when they are not assured that there will not be an infringement of their privacy?
For a company to provide details such as a street address and telephone number is acceptable, but what if that street address is also your home, and the telephone number your house number? If registration of such details were made optional, I am sure that a large proportion of registrants would not provide such information, which in itself would be an indication of how they feel about the project.
Updated 2020 : note that the above post is out-of-date, given this post was originally published in 2002, but is left here for archival purposes. Whois services are still in operation, however thankfully most domain name registrars will now let you enable a "domain name privacy" option, perhaps for a small additional fee, to prevent your private details from being published online after you register a domain name.