You know that domain name that you don’t want anyone to know that you own? The one that you’re either testing out some SEO stuff that’s in the "gray hat" area? The one you don’t want your competitors to know that you own? The one you’ve been considering for sending spam emails?
Yeah, that one.
Well, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals just ruled that using any kind of domain privacy service could get you into legal trouble:
[P]rivate registration is a service that allows registration of a domain name in a manner that conceals the actual registrant’s identity from the public absent a subpoena. We fail to perceive any vagueness on this point. Based on the plain meaning of the relevant terms discussed above, private registration for the purpose of concealing the actual registrant’s identity would constitute "material falsification." Defendants assert that many innocent people who privately register without the requisite intent may be subject to investigation for violation of § 1037 until their intent can be determined, allowing for abuse by enforcement authorities. This may be so, but it does not make the statute unconstitutionally vague.
Simply using a domain privacy service doesn’t make you a criminal, but the ruling appears to suggest that the use of such a service–especially in the use of sending spam emails–could be interpreted as trying to evade identification.
You probably don’t have to worry about the local sheriff knocking on your door, but as far as this ruling goes, no matter what your intentions, concealing your ownership of a domain is–by the letter of the law–material falsification.
Legal eagles, feel free to weigh in with your expert opinions!