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An Explosion in Universe of Web Names

One of the biggest changes in the history of the Internet could be set into motion Monday. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing remains open to fierce debate.

At a meeting in Singapore, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the Internet address system, is expected to approve a vast expansion of the range of addresses available. The group wants to make it possible for Internet users to create their own extensions like .com, .net or .org.

So, get ready for Web sites that end with the names of cities or brands, like .berlin or .canon, to name just two entities that have expressed interest in the proposed system. Crafty entrepreneurs are busy thinking up sites like iwant.beer or whatsfor.dinner.

Icann envisions hundreds of new extensions, and that is just in the first round of applications. The overall range of Internet addresses on offer would increase exponentially.

Icann has been working on this for years. At a meeting in Paris three years ago, its board recommended going ahead. Since then, however, final authorization has been delayed several times, even as Icann has gone ahead with other expansions, including the use of non-Latin alphabets in domain names.

This time around, Peter Dengate Thrush, the chairman of Icann, said he thought the board would give the go-ahead. “We’re feeling reasonably confident at this stage because of the feedback we’ve been getting from all the players,” he said.

Such a vote would be a personal triumph for Mr. Dengate Thrush, given that the meeting in Singapore is set to be his last as chairman. Icann says the expansion would give Internet users vastly greater choice, leading to innovations in online marketing, among other things.

Yet critics of Icann question the need, saying existing suffixes provide plenty of choice. They say Icann wants to railroad the plan through without addressing their concerns.

Owners of corporate brands and other trademarks — who remember the cybersquatting that marred the early days of the Internet, when profiteers claimed brand names and then resold them to their owners — say the expansion would open the door to a new round of intellectual property abuses.

“It’s an unproven idea that has been handled very poorly from a project management standpoint,” said Alan C. Drewsen, executive director of the International Trademark Association.

The primary beneficiaries of the change, critics contend, will be the registrars that maintain Internet addresses; unlike Icann, a nonprofit organization, many registrars are commercial entities.

“The more domains they have out there, the more names they can register and the more money they take in,” said Josh Bourne, president of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, a Washington-based lobby group.

Icann plans safeguards to thwart cybersquatters and other opportunists. The price of the new extensions has been set at a steep $185,000, for example, with a further $25,000 annual fee to maintain them. Trademark owners would be allowed to claim their names for use in addresses during “sunrise” periods following the rollout. These protections have been strengthened since the proposal was outlined.

“My expectation is that people will look at this in a fairly commercial way,” Mr. Dengate Thrush said. “My hope is that they aren’t going to waste a lot of time and money applying for names that don’t stand a chance.”

Mr. Dengate Thrush acknowledged that there were still unresolved issues around implementation. But he said these could be resolved after a vote to go ahead. Icann plans a four-month communication period before applications for addresses will be accepted.

During that time, trademark owners will have to wrestle with some big questions. Should they apply for the new suffixes? Should they register their names for use with other new extensions? Or should they do neither? A lot of money hangs on the decisions.

Mei-lan Stark, senior vice president for intellectual property at News Corp.’s Fox Entertainment Group, recently told a U.S. congressional committee that the change could cost her company at least $12 million in the initial stages alone.

That estimate was based on the cost of registering 300 names in an initial round of 400 new address extensions, at a cost of $100 each, she said. The cost, and related legal bills, would rise as the list of suffixes grew, Ms. Stark added.

Planning is complicated by the fact that brand owners do not know how consumers will react. Icann has already been adding suffixes one by one, in advance of the big bang it envisions. Most recently, it approved .xxx for sexually explicit sites. With a few exceptions, however, marketers prefer .com over other extensions, like .web, .net or suffixes that represent a specific country.

The .xxx extension appears to have had little support from the pornography industry, and its approval prompted dismay in political capitals around the world, including Washington and Brussels. The government advisory council, which monitors Icann and its independent board, had previously voiced concerns.

Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission, wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke of the United States that the introduction of .xxx could create unexpected consequences, perhaps prompting censorship-minded governments to block entire portions of the Internet.

In a response, Lawrence E. Strickling, an assistant commerce secretary who is responsible for Internet policy, agreed, but added that the Obama administration did not think it was “in the long-term best interest of the United States or the global Internet community for us unilaterally to reverse the decision.”

The fact that Icann has ruffled feathers in Brussels and Washington, among other capitals, is not necessarily a bad thing. At a time when governments all over the world are taking a greater interest in what happens in the digital world, the Internet needs an independent guardian and Icann is one of several groups that play an important role in this regard. But it may have to pick its fights carefully.

Ms. Kroes wrote in an e-mail that she continued to support the “multistakeholder” approach to Internet governance, as embodied by Icann. But she said that the board of the organization should be “extremely sensitive to the views of public authorities” as it proceeded with projects like the expansion of Internet addresses.

“Overall, I am concerned that certain public policy issues, which are of great importance to the economic and social well-being of European citizens and businesses, have not been taken into consideration by the Icann board as much as they would deserve,” she said in the e-mail, sent via a spokesman.

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