ICANN green-lights new top-level domains

At the end of the a four-day meeting in Yokohama, Japan, the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has voted unanimously to create new top-level domains for the Internet.

Under the resolution, ICANN will appoint an unspecified number of registry operators by the end of 2000 to operate new top-level domains as alternatives to the current .com, .net and .org domains.

The board’s failure to specify the number of new top-level domains it will create came under fire from some at the conference. Although ICANN Interim-Chairperson Esther Dyson said she would rather see approximately ten new top-level domains created, other board members cautioned that number may be too high given ICANN’s staffing problems, which are in turn related to funding problems.

The application period will run for two months from Aug. 1, and then the public will have a two-week period in which to comment. The organization plans to announce its selections by Nov. 20 and then enter into final negotiations with those applicants, aiming to finish negotiations by Dec. 31.

Applicants will be required to pay a non-refundable application fee of US$50,000, which will be used to fund the examination of application forms at both administrative and legal levels, said ICANN spokesperson Pam Brewster.

The plan, which was at the top of the agenda for the final day’s board meeting, received a mixed reception from attendees.

“Fifty thousand dollars is too much for what they are offering,” said Cary Karp, a member of the International Council of Museums which is hoping to operate a non-commercial .museum top-level domain. “It is at the high end of expectations, for a start, and I am not sure I can justify that much money.”

Karp’s concerns revolve around the failure to specify the number of domains to be issued and so his inability to rate his chances of being awarded a top-level domain.

“I need to talk to ICANN and find out realistically my chances of getting one. If I think I can get one, the museum community can raise $50,000 if it is needed, but I might just withhold from the process on principle.”

For some potential registry operators, the money presents no problem because of the huge potential profits that could be reaped from operating a new domain, although competition to win a new top-level domain remains a risk.

In answer to this, a group of leading registrars including Register.com Inc., Tucows.com Inc. and Melbourne IT Ltd. are considering a joint application for the creation of a new commercial top-level domain, said Elana Broitman, director, policy and public affairs for Register.com. The cooperative will bid for the rights to operate the registry but not register domain names. This will be left up to domain name registrars, she said.

“We are thinking of creating a common registry, open to all registrars whether they are members of the consortium or not,” Broitman said.

New domains – especially generic domains such as .shop – would mean that companies that now have to deal with .com cybersquatters would have a lot more virtual territory to worry about. That prospect “is something that’s the nightmare of every brand owner, certainly,” said Sally Abel, an intellectual-property attorney at Fenwick & West LLP in Palo Alto, Calif. On the other hand, businesses that have lost out on getting the best .com names would have a new shot at an attractive name in a different domain.

But the importance of a catchy or simple-to-remember domain name in establishing a business is debatable, said Gary Szenderski, a senior partner at brand development and advertising firm Szenderski Rohani Worldwide in Irvine, Calif.

“A brand is only as good as what’s behind the name,” said Szenderski. “[Companies] that have established .coms are going to remain established.” Observers said ICANN also may introduce a series of “chartered,” or closed, domains that limit registrations to specific companies or organizations – like .airline, for example. These domains would be limited in much the same way .edu has been restricted to educational institutions.

But closed domains could raise other issues. For example, the Labour Policy Association Inc. in Washington, which represents human resources executives at major corporations, has sent a letter to ICANN opposing the introduction of a .union domain. The group claims that the domain could confuse employees and lead them to believe they’re being represented by unions formed by their companies. But proponents say a .union domain such as Nike.union or Microsoft.union could help foster communication among workers.

Trademark protection remains a major issue for ICANN. The group has tried to make it easier for firms to take trademarks from cybersquatters through its Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy. The policy provides a mechanism for the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva to use in arbitrating domain name disputes. But the system works only after trademark infringement is alleged.