I bought my first domain in the early 1990s, when NetworkSolutions was the ONLY company allowed to sell domain names, as they were the only public domain registrar. If I recall correctly, domains were $150 per year. That was a lot of money back then, especially since I was only getting paid $15/hr doing technical support for Internet In A Box.
In the early 90s, WHOIS info wasn’t a data mining source, and it wasn’t even something that most people understood. I doubt NetSol even offered a “Keep your info private” option. Today though, there are scammer companies that collect and store WHOIS information every minute of every day. They send out fake invoices to get you to either transfer the domain to their registrar for outrageous annual fees, or they come up with some other scam using technical and official sounding information that non-geeks wouldn’t understand – so they send in a check.
On the other hand, sometimes there are domains that people should be able to figure out who owns them, whether for legitimate entrepreneurial ventures, or because they simply want to contact the domain owners for philanthropic endeavors. Or, sometimes you just want to know why someone has a domain that they aren’t using.
The question is… Should domain name WHOIS info all be public?
Domain names are part of the public thing we call “the internet”. So why shouldn’t whois info be public? If you want to find out who owns a coffee shop or other business, you can go to the City Clerk’s office and look up the information. However, many businesses do have lawyers’ names and addresses (also called a ‘Registered Agent’) on file, you still can’t “easily” find out who owns the business. But, it is possible to go through public records to find out who actually owns a business. Not so much with domain names.
If you pay the extra fee (or not, if you use Google Domains, which adds privacy for free), the registrar will put their own address and phone number, and create an obfuscated email forwarder, so that you don’t get bothered by the scammers – or the legitimate people – who want to find out who you are.
I think public benefit services, which the internet has become, should probably have information publicly available. And you should be able to access public records to find out who owns a domain, just like finding out who owns a business. But right now with WHOIS, that’s the only record. You can’t find out who owns a domain without a court order. I’m thinking that needs to change.