The new gTLDs are a whole new can of worms digital marketers are going to have to deal with.
Let the new gold rush begin!
Well, that's what the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) seems to imply on its site, announcing the opening of the new generic top-level domains program, which launched on January 12 (the day I'm writing this column). It's right there on the home page: "Starting today," crows the banner taking up a good third of the home page, "Someone will discover the next big .thing!" (Clever use of that "." BTW.)
If you haven't heard, the "next big thing" is that it's now possible for you (provided you have $185,000 lying around) to create your own top-level domain name. Forget about those boring .com's, .net's, and .org's…tomorrow's Internet's going to feature designer top-level domains (.think .aardvark, .deals, or .republicans) that all of us are going to be clamoring to register for. Why should Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have to settle for MittRomney.com when he could have MittRomney.republicans or MittRomney.president? Heck, if someone decided to shell out the dough to create the new TLD, he could even own MittRomney.checkoutmyhair if he wanted it.
And that's exactly the problem. What TLD should his campaign register in order to make sure that nobody out there "hijacks" his name? What if he neglected to buy the ".sucks" TLD and somebody created "MittRomney.sucks"? He might not even have to forget to buy it: according to the ICANN gTLD FAQ (#1.9 if you're wondering), "new TLD operator[s] may choose not to sell all second-level registrations." Don't like a new TLD but want to protect your brand by registering (and sitting on) your domain name? You could be SOL if the owner decides they just don't feel like selling you your domain name.
Whether the new gTLDs are a gold rush or not remains to be seen, but they're definitely a whole new can of worms digital marketers are going to have to deal with. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission warned back in December that the new system "has the potential to magnify both the abuse of the domain name system and the corresponding challenges [the FTC] encounter[s] in tracking down Internet fraudsters." It even goes on to note that "scam artists" will now be presented with "infinite opportunities" for mischief such as phishing if the plan goes through.
And it is. Today you can hop on over to newgltds.icann.org and start the application process. As for ICANN, it'll be happy to take your money and evaluate your application, but don't expect it to notify you if someone else wants to register your trademark. "At this time," states FAQ 1.12, "ICANN is not contemplating a notification system" for trademark owners. Want to pre-register your trademark in advance of applying for one? Fuggetaboutit…FAQ 1.10 declares that "ICANN does not accept reservations or pre-registrations based on trademarks." It's going to leave that to the registries, who will be "required to operate sunrise or intellectual property claims services for the protection of trademarks" as part of their duties as a new gTLD owner. Yup, that'll solve the problem.
I'm sure that ICANN has the best intentions (it's not trying to make money off of this and actually plans on "consulting" "the community" "as to how excess [registration funds] should be used"). But considering how many problems the existing TLDs have wrestled with (including all the controversy surrounding the .xxx domains and Google's recent decision to ban the entire .co.cc domain in order to cut down on malware distribution issues), introducing a free-for-all top-level domain rush is surely going to create some major problems for all of us who use the Internet:
Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Maybe ICANN's system of gTLD evaluators, public comment, and other checks and balances will prevent the worst from happening. But for now, fellow marketers, it's best to keep an eye out on new TLD developments if you don't want to be SOL.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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