ICANN unleashes the mother of all domain-name land grabs

Have you ever gone to a website with a .jobs address, or a .mobi URL, or one that ends in .biz or .info? If you have, then you’ve visited one of the newer additions to the internet’s central directory system, so-called “top level domains” that were created by the entity that runs the system, which is known as ICANN. On Thursday, the agency launched a new program to add even more domain names to the system, despite the fact that some believe there is no need for them. According to these critics — a group that includes the Federal Trade Commission — the move will unnecessarily complicate the internet’s structure, and the only ones who will benefit are domain-name registrars, many of whom sit on the ICANN board.
Under the program, anyone can apply to operate their own top-level domain, and there are very few restrictions on what the domain can include (although most observers believe the agency will likely draw the line at offensive words). The program could lead to hundreds of new domains that involve specific products or topics, such as .music or .sports, and a number of cities including Berlin, Paris and New York have said they plan to apply to create a domain with their names as well. Companies have also said they are considering launching their own domain names, such as .canon or .motorola.
This might sound like a great idea if you happen to be a domain-name registrar, who charges users annual fees to provide them with a domain name for their website or service, but to many it sounds like a recipe for chaos — and for lawsuits. The Association of National Advertisers says it is worried that this domain-name land rush will result in fraudsters snapping up brand-name domains by the bucketload, leaving corporations who own those brands to go after them all one by one. The federal Commerce Department has raised a red flag on that issue as well, saying it will create unnecessary headaches.

Agency says the move will promote competition

ICANN, meanwhile, says the addition of new domains is part of its mandate, which is to “promote competition in the domain name market while ensuring Internet security and stability.” The chief executive officer of the agency says that far from causing chaos, the new system could actually add more clarity, since users might be able to remember a company’s address if it is based on a domain that includes the company name. The Federal Trade Commission disagrees, however. Chairman Jon Leibowitz has said:

My sense is that a lot of this demand is just absolutely artificial and largely imagined by the ICANN board. We’re an agency that’s required to protect consumers, and from our perspective, this is a potential disaster.

To make matters worse, critics say that ICANN won’t be notifying companies if someone tries to set up a domain name that looks like a trademark infringement (although the agency said it will be posting the applications publicly so people can track that for themselves), nor has it agreed to block certain domains from being created by adding them to a blacklist. Opponents of an application will have 60 days to file a response, and ICANN says it will be doing a “full background review” to ensure that those registering new top-level domains don’t have a record of fraudulent or anti-competitive activity.

So why would ICANN be interested in launching potentially hundreds or even thousands of new domains if we don’t actually need them? The agency says in a FAQ that it is not interested in the money that will be generated from the program — although each individual top-level domain application will cost $185,000 — because it is a non-profit entity. But a number of observers, including Wired magazine editor David Rowan, have noted that the ICANN board happens to include a number of people who either operate or are associated with domain-name registry companies in various countries.

Will it promote competition, or chaos and lawsuits?

If all this seems a little haphazard for a core function of the global internet, that’s probably because ICANN itself is to some extent a holdover from an earlier time. Its full name is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and it is a non-profit entity based in California that manages the domain-name system through a number of related entities, including the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Before ICANN was set up in the late 1990s, the U.S. government effectively controlled the domain-name system, although for many years it was run by a single man, Jon Postel.
In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, ICANN insists that the rollout of the new domain-name program will be uneventful, and says it has learned from two previous expansions (PDF link): one in 2000 that added domains like .info and .biz, and another in 2009 that added domains that include non-Western characters. It also says managing hundreds of domains isn’t an issue, since there are already more than 200 “country code” domains — including some popular ones such as .tv (the code for the island nation of Tuvalu) and .me (the code for Montenegro).
Not everyone is convinced things will be so easy, however. Domain industry blogger Andrew Allemann, for example, says he is worried about a number of potential problems, including a raft of registrations by domain-name hijackers and cybersquatters, but also controversy over potential top-level applications — such as .gay or .sex, or racially sensitive terms (Note: Allemann is married to GigaOM writer Stacey Higginbotham). In any case, the land-rush has officially begun.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Dunechaser and Quaziefoto