The ongoing U.S. election has done more than highlight the problem of hanging chads. It's highlighted a problem of much greater potential consequence: domain name hoarding.
Fearing that satirists or political enemies might make off with names like bushsucks.com, Bush campaign chief Karl Rove made himself administrative contact on dozens of names, every one he could think of.
The intent was to grab and hoard all good (read negative) domain names, forcing anyone interested in the idea of George W. Bush to go to the "official" site. Of course, it didn't work. (Par for the course in this election.) Satirists found names, and so did the Gore people. Rove wasted his money.
Campaigns aren't alone in this -- far from it. Procter & Gamble grabbed names on every product it had or might want to create in the future. A name Garry Trudeau made up, myvulture.com, was grabbed by fashionmall.com and points to its boo.com page.
This problem started with the registrars, especially Network Solutions (NSI). Rather than make sure that networks got .net addresses and groups like political organizations took .org addresses, NSI encouraged everyone to register in every domain. It did this for a simple reason -- greed. It wanted the registration fees, which came in bigtime (as the probable VP-elect might say).
There's a real cost here. If you can't find an appropriate name, you have to go to the after-market, one increasingly controlled by the same registrars that spawned the problem in the first place.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has suggested opening up new domains, but that's not going to work. Hoarders and trademark holders will simply snap up their favored names on the new domains. How long will it be before we see Coca-Cola.aero?
The real solution is for commonsense rules to be set down and (more importantly) enforced. There should be a limit to the number of names pointing to any other address. Names that aren't used (or aren't advertised) should not be renewable. Nonprofits and campaigns should stay out of the .com domain entirely. And there needs to be a resolution system (like the current one covering trademarked names) that will govern all this.
This may prove harder to accomplish than campaign finance reform. ICANN is not a representative body, so it has no democratic legitimacy or credibility. The folks petitioning and pushing it are the same registration agencies (and registrar wannabes) that created the present mess. The result is that no one involved in creating this mess has any financial incentive to see it solved.
Meanwhile, we all suffer. If you've got a great new Internet business idea, you could very well end up paying a fee -- perhaps a huge one -- to some hoarder sitting on the name you want. This fee will go into a private pocket and benefit no one but that private party. So maybe you won't start that business and hire those people, and eventually, the hoarders will find that all they registered were empty names.
By that time, of course, it will be too late.
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Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.
March 19, 2014