Inside track to Internet names

There’s a great demand for new Web addresses these days, whatever kind of business you may be in. For example, converting a Windows NT domain to Windows 2000’s new Active Directory structure almost requires a working Internet address system for network naming purposes.

This year, new suffixes – in addition to the existing .com, .net, and .org – are supposed to ease the current scarcity of good names. Windows users and others hope short, simple names will once again be available.

Unfortunately, the new suffixes may not expand the name space much. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN) has created an insiders’ game in which it’s likely that a few players will cash in on a new form of Internet mania.

I flew last month to ICANN’s annual board meeting in Marina del Rey, Calif., to observe its decision on new top-level domains (TLDs). Four problems are now obvious.

Restricted domains. Instead of assuring as many new suffixes as needed over the next few years, ICANN authorized only seven. Four of these are restricted domains: .aero, .coop, .museum, and .pro.

To register a name in one of these, you must belong to an international association of air carriers, co-operatives, museums, or be a lawyer, doctor and so on. Another suffix, .name, is for personal monikers only. That leaves just two new TLDs, .biz and .info, to handle all the pent-up demand for new Web businesses.

Them what has, gets. To restrict the pool even more, ICANN favours a policy in which owners of registered trademarks will get a 90-day head start before anyone else can register names in new, generic domains.

Last year, ICANN created a quasi-legal system in which trademark owners can take away .com, .net, and .org names from parties who may be using them legitimately. The 90-day head start means the same companies who already own names ending in .com will soak up the same names in the new suffixes.

Board self-interest. After criticism, four ICANN directors with personal involvement in proposals promised to recuse themselves. In fact, they merely stepped away from the table during actual voting. And long before votes were tallied, these directors had gained a valuable inside edge.

One of the “recused” directors used the dais to criticize competing applications. He particularly disliked .union, a proposal sponsored by a United Nations-related international federation of unions. Their proposal failed on a 5-5 vote, whereas his group’s proposal was accepted.

Opening day madness. ICANN seems to have set up a wild free-for-all. When the new general-purpose suffixes are finally offered to the public, hackers with fast bots will likely claim batches of new names at 12:01 a.m. on opening day. This is a potential windfall for the wily at the expense of legitimate businesses.

We found out on Nov. 10 what happens when a fair distribution of new names isn’t required. On that day, Network Solutions Inc. (a division of VeriSign Inc.) and other registrars started selling .com names in Chinese, Japanese and other languages.

Several registrars have told me they could not connect to VeriSign’s central server for over two hours. During this time, the best names went to those with inside knowledge. Judith Oppenheimer, the editor of an astute high-tech newsletter, states flatly, “VeriSign had pre-registration prior to Nov. 10.” (Go to and click Register.) One registrar said 10 or so people got thousands of valuable names right off the bat.

ICANN allowed this sale before standards groups could ensure that the new characters won’t crash Internet routers. And the troubles are just beginning. With ICANN’s legitimacy in doubt, the government of China is claiming an exclusive right to assign names that use the Chinese language. The development of rival naming systems takes the Internet another step toward fragmentation.

To give everyone a fair shot at new TLDs, it would be easy to establish a lottery on opening day. ICANN should at least minimize hoarding. (About two-thirds of registered names have no content a year later. See But because ICANN is treating new domains like lucrative monopolies, you might as well cash in with ICANN insiders. has pre-registration deals set up with several .biz, .info and .pro registrars for preferential treatment.

RegLand’s US$20 fee for pre-registration (plus more fees if you actually get a desired name) seems at least as reasonable as ICANN’s dubious “anything goes” policy.

Livingston is a contributing editor at InfoWorld (U.S.). His latest book is Windows Me Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to [email protected]. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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