New TLDs criticized as insufficient

To many companies today, Shakespeare’s question “What’s in a name?” must seem a little cavalier. Ask any company with an on-line presence and they’ll tell you exactly what’s in a name – especially a domain name.

If it’s not short, snappy and to the point, then it may not have much drawing or staying power, but newcomers looking to dot-com their businesses may find a scarcity of suitably snazzy Web addresses.

In an attempt to alleviate the situation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) created seven new top-level domains (TLDs), but many believe that ICANN’s efforts are insufficient and perhaps even futile and unfair.

“Even with the new names, the best real estate on the Web is still .com, and that’s not going to change,” said Carl Howe, a principal analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

In fact, the new business suffixes – .biz and .info – will cause confusion, he said. If consumers don’t find the organization they are looking for at .com, they may not necessarily think to look for it under other suffixes, Howe said.

What the Internet needs is not a plethora of new suffixes but a more meaningful way to describe and navigate it, Howe suggested.

A .geo address, for example, could help surfers find a site depending on where it is. This might help users to find servers that are nearby – an application that will come in especially handy when devices such as printers have their own URLs, Howe said. Users will then be able to find the printer nearest to them, regardless of where they are.

ICANN must also address international needs, Howe said. It must, for example, create standards for domain names that don’t use roman characters.

“I’m hoping we’ll move off the ‘How do you create more real estate?’ to ‘How do you describe the Internet in more useful ways?'”

Howe is not ICANN’s only critic. Another unlikely player is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The freedom-of-speech advocate, along with other organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, filed a joint letter of complaint to the U.S. Department of Commerce asking that the department hold public hearings before approving ICANN’s seven new TLDs.

The ACLU feels that ICANN’s procedure for selecting the new TLDs was arbitrary, and may infringe upon freedom of expression, and that the US$50,000 fee for submitting a TLD application to ICANN is prohibitive.

“ICANN has failed to recognize the needs of individual Internet users and non-commercial organizations,” the letter said. “The combination of artificial domain names scarcity, arbitrary rules for selection of new gTLDs (generic TLDs), arbitrary rules for the assignment of names within the gTLDs, and limits on Domain Name System (DNS) expansion present a serious threat to freedom of expression.”

Barry Steinhardt, associate director at the ACLU in New York, explained further. “They can’t be making – and it’s obvious they did make – decisions about which top-level domains to approve based on their view of the value of the content,” he said. ICANN shouldn’t restrict the number top-level domains – there should be as many as needed. Top-level domains are indeed road maps on the information superhighway, and in order to be found, you need to have a good enough sign, which is in your domain name.”

The climate surrounding domain names doesn’t seem to be much better up north.

David Jones, the president of Kitchener, Ont.-based Electronic Frontier Canada and a computer science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., shares some of the ACLU’s concerns about the new TLDs.

“Why should they (the new TLDs) have to do with shopping and not with unions?” he said, referring to the rejected .union TLD.

“The implicit signal being sent out is, ‘You’re a second class citizen if you’re not a corporation,'” he said.

Jones is also critical of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), which oversees the assignment of .ca domains. He believes that CIRA’s rules are completely arbitrary, and wondered aloud why the domain is prohibited by CIRA but is permitted as a valid address. (Editor’s note: please be advised that the Web site mentioned by Jones contains graphic material.)

“It highlights the arbitrary nature of the organization that makes that decision,” Jones said. He has tried to obtain a list of names that are prohibited by CIRA, but without much luck. “The staff at CIRA is not very well informed. No one knows who has the list. There’s a 1-800 number but not a great level of expertise.”

Asked what domains aren’t allowed in Canada, Maureen Cubberley, the CIRA Board chair, said the Authority used examples of what other jurisdictions have done to determine what to block.

“To set up a system whereby you’re blocking every variation of those words first of all doesn’t make sense, and secondly, would be extremely time-consuming and costly,” she said.