The bureaucracy in charge of assigning domain names is at best unorganized, and at worst about to crumble.

Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank International and author of Domain Wars, said he believes the crumbling has already begun and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) isn’t helping fast enough.

“On the domain registration side, it is breaking right now as we speak. [ICANN] is putting committees together, but no one has addressed the fundamental rule of this first-come first-served basis,” Javed said.

At the moment, anyone can register within the popular .com domain on a first-come, first-served basis that pays no attention to copyright or trademark issues, Javed said.

“This concept — to let democracy prevail and freedom dominate and let us give you a name whether it’s yours or not because this is your freedom — was an excellent idea at the university level at the inception of the Internet in the beginning,” he said.

But now cybersquatters have come into play, snapping up domains and then holding them up for ransom to the companies they know will want them. This is precisely what happened to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a major league baseball expansion team.

Dave Wright, Internet co-ordinator for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla., said a man heard the announcement about the new team’s name and rushed out to register www.devilrays.com.

“He had it pre-registered before we got ours up and I don’t know what his motives were, because I wasn’t here (working for the Devil Rays at the time). He did ask for money and the team said, ‘No!'” Wright said. The amount was rumoured to be US$10,000, but Wright wasn’t sure if that was correct.

“I don’t think it was the number one headache ever, but I know it was an annoyance. But we were able to get our name out there in the format of www.devilray.com…It was a big problem at the start, but once people got the hang of it, it wasn’t a big problem.”

Recently, Wright said, the man gave up on trying to get money out of the team and sent them a letter saying they could have the domain for free. Both domains now work, and Wright said the team will decide after this season whether or not to keep both.

While the difference of having that “s” may seem insignificant, Javed said having a good domain name that people can easily remember is crucial for e-commerce.

“Here’s the point: no matter what business you’re in, you need an e-commerce identity. Without that, people cannot find you,” Javed said.

Trying to find a sensible .com name these days is increasingly difficult. Most three-letter domain names (such as www.xyz.com) are taken, and those that aren’t are usually already held by domain name services that will charge big bucks for them. In a random search for three-letter .com domains, www.ujd.com sported a “for sale” sign listing three-letter prices at US$4,000.

This has led to more and more domain names that cram the entire trademark into one word, such as www.starwarsphantommenace.com.

When companies get fed up trying to make a sensible name work in the .com space, they can move on to regional names that have their own sets of problems.

“We’ve got 246 countries that have been assigned their national top-level domain names (NTLDs), and those NTLDs have their own 246 control policies. Some are free, some are expensive, some require proof, some don’t require proof, some are first-come basis, some have restrictions and so on,” Javed said.

Turkmenistan might not sound like a hotbed for e-commerce until one realizes that the country’s NTLD is .tm. Companies wishing to use that as an apparent trademark marker can snap up www.companyname.tm for US$50 per year, according to the NTLD listings in Javed’s book.

Canada’s domain, .ca, hasn’t been a favourite option for Canadian companies. The domain is still free for the moment, albeit with a possible fee from whatever ISP registers the domain, but there are so many rules and regulations surrounding .ca that many companies have elected to go for a .com address instead.

John Demco from the University of British Columbia’s computer science department manages the .ca domain on a voluntary basis. He said the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) is still being set up, and his best guess is the corporation won’t be ready to take over the .ca domain until at least the end of 1999.

Demco said the current rules around .ca were established in 1987, long before anyone fathomed the Internet becoming the commercial enterprise we know today. Back then, rules such as having only one .ca domain per organization and sub-domains based on province made sense, he said.

“An organization can actually register two (domain names) in the case that their name is in both languages, and then they can register one domain name in English and one in French, but basically it’s one domain name per organization,” Demco said.

“To get a national domain name (i.e. www.company.ca), an organization needs to meet one of three criteria: being federally incorporated; having offices in one or more province or territory; or having a suitable Canadian-registered trademark.

“But even if you have multiple trademarks you can still only register one name,” he said.

The .ca domain is also tangled up in a first-come, first-served mess. Currently it’s still following that pattern, but when CIRA takes over Canadian domain name registration that may or may not be changed.

Demco said the Patent and Trademark Institute of Canada has proposed that there be an initial period of a couple months under the new system during which any listed trademark can only be registered as a domain by the trademark holder.

“If somebody says they want to register xyz.ca and it’s on the list of trademarks, only the trademark holder would be able to register xyz.ca for that period…But if somebody wanted to register abc.ca and it wasn’t on the list of trademarks, then they could register it immediately,” Demco said.

“The thinking there is that since there’s going to be a change of rules, and since the change will probably be going from fairly restrictive to fairly liberal, the Patent and Trademark folks wanted to find some sort of middle ground so the valid trademark holders could get in there and not have to try to stampede to try to register all their domains in one day.”

Demco said he can’t be sure what’s going to happen in the long term as the entire system is still up in the air, including what fees will be charged. What information is available for .ca can be found at www.cdnnet.ca. CIRA’s site is at www.cira.ca.

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