trends

ICANN Opens Pandora's Box

Stephen Yagielowicz
Earlier this year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced its approval of the biggest expansion to the Internet over the past forty years; recommending a new Top Level Domain (TLD) addressing system that will dramatically increase the number of available domain names.

"The Board today accepted a recommendation from its global stakeholders that it is possible to implement many new names to the Internet, paving the way for an expansion of domain name choice and opportunity," said Dr. Paul Twomey, President and CEO of ICANN.

The move paves the way, for among other things, a realization of the .xxx TLD — without the need for the cumbersome approval process that previously led to its demise after considerable opposition from both pro- and anti-adult industry forces.

You can also expect to see .sex, .porn, .playboy — and a host of other brand and genre-specific TLDs being implemented by those with the $100,000+ bankroll that will be required to launch each new TLD.

While ICANN insists that it is not 'selling' the new TLDs, it will charge an application fee for its consideration of TLD proposals, which are open to any "established entity" from anywhere in the world.

"We expect that the fee will be in the low six figure dollar amounts," Twomey said. "The costs of developing and implementing this policy will be borne by the applicants, but we're certainly not setting this up for profit."

Although the plan's final version must still be approved by the ICANN board, insiders expect that applications for new names will be available in early 2009.

"The potential here is huge. It represents a whole new way for people to express themselves on the net," Twomey said. "It's a massive increase in the 'real estate' of the Internet."

There are currently 21 TLDs for users to choose from, including familiar entities such as .com, .net, .org, etc., but the system is not capable of meeting user's demands for relevant or brand-centric names.

Now, according to ICANN, applicants will be able to choose their own domain name "so that choices are most appropriate for their customers or potentially the most marketable" — establishing community-targeted names such as the .travel TLD currently being used by the travel industry. Other groups seek to develop city-based TLDs, including .nyc (for New York City), .berlin and .paris.

It's not just cities that are being targeted, however, but languages too; with an enhanced character set that supports many different types of characters beyond its current limitation to the base set of 37 Roman characters.

"One of the most exciting prospects before us is that the expanding system is also being planned to support extensions in the languages of the world," ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said. "This is going to be very important for the future of the Internet in Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia."

Obviously, this expansion of the domain name system has both pros and cons for online adult operators; with enhanced global marketing and branding opportunities on one hand and the specter of a forced buy-in to the '.xxx scheme' — or one of any other copycat schemes that could come along.

After all, a well-capitalized company could spend $100k on setting up a TLD and still have plenty of lobbying money left to convince Washington lawmakers that "forcing the adult industry to 'clean up its act' by moving porn sites to their own area away from our children, is a great idea."

According to recent XBIZ News reports, ICM Registry President Stuart Lawley is still intent on securing the .xxx TLD — but hoping to do so through the established, formal petition of rejection process that ICM is currently engaged in. I would not, however, expect to see Lawley pass on the opportunity to acquire .xxx if he could purchase the TLD outright before his petition process was concluded.

"The process has been hijacked to a significant extent by folks who see the domain name system as their personal piggy bank," tech policy consultant Lauren Weinstein warned.

Many others agree, and fear that cybersquatting will become even more rampant as get-rich-quick types attempt to secure valuable brand name addresses in hopes of a profitable resale; while fraudsters attempt to use common misspellings to divert traffic or even for campaigns of intentional corporate sabotage.

"If the domain name system is completely relaxed, cybersquatting will turn into a far greater problem, with companies struggling to protect their websites and intellectual property," Thomas Herbert of Hostway said. "For example, Amazon would have to register many more domain names including Amazon.amazon, amazon.shopping, amazon.electronics. The list is practically endless, and the net result would be a much more chaotic and disorganized web."

While ICANN has stated that trademarks would not automatically be reserved, it has put a mechanism in place where trademark owners can have their arguments considered; but what about the more popular names, where an equally valid registered trademark may exist in multiple countries; or generic terms such as .news — or .sex?

An independent arbitration process will seek to settle disputes, but when necessary, a disputed domain would be auctioned with the name going to the highest bidder.

"On balance, the board feels that adopting this resolution is in the best interests of the Internet and the public at large," ICANN board member Dennis Jennings said.

But what about the interests of adult webmasters?

Details about the process of dealing with "offensive" names are scarce, but according to ICANN, which will not be the decision maker in any "objectionable" TLD name dispute, "an objection-based process based on public morality and order" will be used by "an international arbitration body utilizing criteria drawing on provisions in a number of international treaties."

Since morality-based objections were made against .xxx — and would undoubtedly be cast against .sex, .porn and any other similar term or adult brand — the fate of adult-themed TLDs is far from certain, "liberalized" registration policies notwithstanding.

Other considerations include the desirability and marketability of "custom" TLDs in a world accustomed to seeing a .com as a sign of professionalism and stability. While there have been several reports suggesting that the new names will be easily promoted through search engines, anyone familiar with search engine marketing will question this and the SE's desires to give relevancy to "non-standard" TLDs.

Of course, this expansion of the TLD system into infinite options will train users to see the value of information presented on non-standard domains — especially when it comes from trusted brands, perhaps diminishing .com's perception as "the TLD of choice."

There is also the "reverse cool factor" where the introduction of hip, well-marketed, youth-sensitive brand TLDs, will make younger consumers see the established .com addresses much the way they see Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain — and wanting to be associated with something "new and different" instead.

While I personally believe in the long-term market dominance of the dot-com address, there's no doubt that ICANN's opening of the TLD space will revolutionize the industry — and perhaps in ways we can't yet foresee.

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