ICANN Changes Could Lead to Brand-Specific Domains

Businesses that haven’t given much thought lately to their domain names may have reason to take another look at them starting next spring. If all goes according to schedule, that’s when the long approval process will begin for new top-level domains to challenge the dominance of .com.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the not-for-profit organization charged with handling domain-name issues, wants to remove the current limits on generic top-level domains (gTLDs). These gTLDs are the ones with three or more letters, to distinguish them from the two-letter domains assigned to each country. There are currently 21, seven of which are available for general use. ICANN has been planning to open the gTLD gates since 2007, but lately the tide of official documents and meetings has increased as it prepares for a proposed launch of the new approval process in spring 2010.

When the Internet first went commercial in the mid-1990s, there were three gTLDs for businesses to worry about: .com, .org, and .net. (Several others, like .edu, .gov, and .mil, had restricted uses.) Originally, .org and .net were supposed to be for not-for-profit organizations and network providers respectively, but as the .com land grab got completely out of hand, domain-name registrars opened them up to businesses as well. Seven new gTLDs approved in 2000 didn’t help matters, with choices like .info and .biz that didn’t have any clear function separate from .com. And the addition of several restricted-purpose gTLDs in 2005 went virtually unnoticed (and unused) in most commercial circles, with the possible exception of .mobi (sites designed for mobile phone display).

It’s easy to think that domain names, as such, are almost irrelevant today, as most Web users rely heavily on search and bookmarks to find things. Most U.S. businesses have their desired .com domain names, and many have registered the corresponding names in .biz, .info, .net, etc., just to protect themselves from cybersquatters and unsavory operations that want to leech off their established identity. Businesses blocked out of .com have resorted to less desirable alternatives, relying on Google to draw customers to them.

But Paul Levins, ICANN’s VP for corporate affairs, says there are many potential innovative uses for new gTLDs. He says they could help companies sharpen their online identities and make it easier for both customers and search engines to find them on the first try. Some of them may be place-specific (like .nyc or .paris). Some may be subject-specific (like .sport). And some may even be company-specific (like .toyota). Over time, a well-marketed TLD might give .com a run for its money in a particular business category or location.

A coalition of environmental groups has proposed a .eco domain that would be used only for companies and products that adhere to the “green” standards set by the .eco registry. Joe’s Pizza in New York City could depend on .nyc to differentiate it from establishments of the same name in other cities (though Ray’s Pizza might want to spring for its own TLD).

“Our interest lies not in the promotion of any particular name or its success,” Levins says. “Our interest lies in seeing that it’s the most open, fair, and choice-laden platform possible.” The original impetus for the expansion was to accommodate new TLDs that use character sets other than English, like Russian, Arabic or Chinese, but removing those limitations allowed ICANN to open the system to almost any desired TLD up to 65 characters long.

As the plan now stands, any business or organization could apply to be a registry for a gTLD of its choice. It would have to pay $185,000 in fees to ICANN (keeping out hobbyists), have an adequate infrastructure for maintaining the proposed registry (costs unknown, but pegged by some as high as $500,000), and have a letter from its government or another authoritative source that the organization is solvent, not criminal or run by criminals, and generally capable of fulfilling registry functions.

It’s too early to say whether the new domains will simplify online commercial life by focusing TLDs the way they were originally meant to be, or complicate it immeasurably by creating unlimited new opportunities for consumer confusion. But with ICANN estimating that the first new gTLDs won’t be online until sometime in 2011, there’s plenty of time to contemplate the possibilities. Watch this space in the next few weeks for an examination of trademark issues connected with the expansion, and an analysis of the potential for crime and malicious mischief.

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