Why the new domain-name lottery is a train wreck

In case you missed all of the hullabaloo, the internet is about to get a whole lot bigger — or noisier and more confusing, depending on how you look at it. That’s because ICANN, the non-profit agency that controls the internet address system, has decided to expand the existing catalogue of names that can be used in web addresses so that it can add hundreds of new “top-level domains.” Do we really need addresses that end in .beer or .movie? ICANN seems to think that we do, and the lottery to determine which ones are ultimately accepted got under way on Wednesday. The agency seems to think this will increase competition, but it seems more likely to cause unnecessary chaos and upheaval.
This particular train was set in motion over a year ago, when ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a former U.S. agency that is now a non-profit managed by industry representatives — said it planned to broaden the domain-name system. The process was launched earlier this year, and allowed anyone to apply for a new top-level domain of their choice (provided they paid a $185,000 fee). Cities such as New York and Paris have applied for their own names, as have companies such as Coca-Cola and Apple, and both Google and Amazon have applied for a bewildering variety of names, including .lol and .book.

Do we need a .beer domain name?

The full list of almost 2,000 domain names that have been applied for so far is available here, and it contains everything from .arab and .poker to .gay and .hotel. One enterprising programmer has sorted the massive list according to the most popular suggestions — which include .app, .home, .inc and .art. Whoever is awarded the right to manage a domain will have the authority to approve or block any entity from having an address with that domain, meaning Amazon could theoretically control who uses .book.
It’s easy to see why New York or Paris might want to have their own domain, so that they can have web addresses that are unique to the city, and perhaps convince some companies or agencies to register domains with the .nyc or .paris extension as a way of displaying their civic pride. And you could argue that having a .inc domain or something similar would help companies of all kinds — but then we already have a .co domain, which hardly anyone uses. And there are plenty of other domains that are also seldom used, including .mobi (for mobile) and .biz. Do we need hundreds more?
Are that many companies or individuals or organizations really going to register for a .gay domain name, or a .arab one? And what purpose would it serve to have a .beer domain name, or a .pizza domain? That doesn’t seem to matter to ICANN — it plans to hand out names by the thousands regardless of whether anyone wants them (although it’s not clear what will happen with .porn or other suggestions).

The fact that no one seems to have been clamoring for these new top-level domains raises the question of why ICANN bothered to implement a new system at all. The agency — which has been criticized in the past for its secrecy and lack of accountability — says that it is designed to enhance competition, but others argue that the domain business has been pretty competitive for a long time. What the ICANN decision feels like to some is a gigantic land grab by domain registrars who have gotten tired of fighting over a few remaining .com and .org names (ICANN will also get some hefty annual registration fees).

Who benefits most? ICANN and domain registrars

This kind of behavior is part of what has made ICANN a lightning rod for criticism, particularly from those who believe it is too beholden to U.S. corporate interests, despite being a theoretically non-partisan and non-profit agency. And those criticisms have in turn helped fuel support for proposals aimed at taking away some of ICANN’s control over the internet and giving it to someone like the International Telecommunications Union, a branch of the United Nations that is expected to lobby for broad oversight authority at a meeting in Dubai in December — an idea that some, including TCP/IP inventor Vint Cerf, believe would be a dangerous step.
In some ways, an explosion of irrelevant or unnecessary domain names may not matter all that much to the average internet user — many will simply type the name of a product or a company into a search box and expect Google or Bing to figure out where to send them. But some companies will have to spend a lot of time and effort snapping up all the variations on their corporate name, their product names, and anything else that might be associated with their business. That’s going to put a lot of cash not just in domain registrars’ pockets, but also in the pockets of cyber-squatters.
In the end, this massive domain-name expansion really helps no one, except for domain registrars and ICANN itself. Unfortunately, there is no way to undo it or mitigate the outcome because ICANN is in sole control of the process. Welcome to your new internet.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Woodley Wonderworks and Dunechaser