Domain-name expansion likely to create turf wars

©iStockphoto.com / Selensergen
©iStockphoto.com / Selensergen
Posted: June 30, 2011

Stand aside, dot-com, king of the Web's early years. The realm of top-level domains, fiefdoms that also include dot-net, dot-edu, dot-org, and dot-gov, is about to get much more populous.

The dramatic rise in the number of new fiefdoms won't begin until 2013. But as the landscape starts to take shape in the coming months, you can expect some fascinating battles for brand-new turf - potentially valuable property created from whole cloth by the nonprofit corporation that oversees the Internet's naming system.

One local Internet lawyer foresees a fight for control of dot-Philly. New York City has already made it clear that it sees dot-NYC as a potential civic asset, and has taken steps to steer its future. And large companies will undoubtedly become lords of their own domains. You can expect to see dot-Ford, dot-Google, and dot-Microsoft.

But the rules laid down last week by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, don't stop with such obvious new entrants, which will add to the handful of top-level domains that have joined the pioneers over the last decade - such as dot-info, dot-biz, dot-mobi, dot-jobs, and dot-travel.

Come January, when the application process opens for new top-level domains, the lid comes off. ICANN initially expects only a few hundred prospective domain registrants to pay its $185,000 application fee. But qualified applicants can seek to create domains based on just about any word in the dictionary, place name in the gazetteer, or trade name under the applicant's legitimate control.

To supporters of the more open architecture, the change is a long time coming.

"What people are looking for are domain names that reflect their preference in some way. There's no reason to be restricted to dot-com, dot-org, or dot-net," says Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University active in Internet-governance issues. "If you want to try dot-music or dot-food, why not try?"

Even advocates of the new rules say they are unsure how these turf battles will play out - or even how much the outcomes will matter.

In the Web's early years, turf battles were often over control of generic names that seemed to have obvious value, such as Pets.com or Cars.com. Any business looking to build an online identity faced the worry that Web surfers would go to the site of a more aggressive competitor.

I'm living proof of their concerns. Well aware there may be better choices, I still reflexively type in www.weather.com when I want a quick forecast. I'm not choosing the Weather Channel's site over, say, AccuWeather's or the National Weather Service's. But it meets my needs and, above all, has a memorable address.

The explosion of new top-level domains could change that dynamic, says Frank Taney, chair of an information-technology group at Philadelphia's Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney law firm. Taney says he expects the new top-level domains to eventually decrease the value of generic dot-com names, simply because there will be so many possibilities.

Since ICANN's announcement, Taney has been musing over the local impact - including the prospect of a fight over dot-philly as a new top-level domain.

"Nobody has exclusive rights to use Philly," Taney says, noting that the string of six letters, P-H-I-L-L-Y, is part of several hundred registered trademarks - including my own media company's Philly.com. "It's a nickname for the city and really for the region."

In its guidebook on how the new domains will be awarded, ICANN itself warns of the problem for "nicknames or close renderings of a city name," and suggests that a city may want to submit its own application.

Might Philadelphia do that - perhaps on its own or via some public-private partnership?

Tommy Jones, Philadelphia interim chief technology officer, says city officials have begun to weigh the possibilities.

"We're just trying to decide which one we're going for: dot-Philly, dot-Phila, or dot-Philadelphia," says Jones, a recent transplant from Washington who prefers dot-Philly but wonders if the nickname is used more by outsiders than by locals. "Within Philadelphia, there don't seem to be a lot of things that refer to the city as Philly."

While advocates see the new top-level domains as democratizing the Internet, the shift isn't without its critics. One is Esther Dyson, a pioneering Internet entrepreneur who served as ICANN's founding chairwoman.

"It's great to create things of value out of nothing. But this is creating duplication and redundancy rather than value," Dyson says. "Ultimately, it's going to enrich people who run registries and license domain names."

Dyson suggests that an explosion of new top-level domains will address a problem that doesn't exist, or perhaps one that can't be solved: people's ability to recall Web addresses.

"The big problem here is that people can't get the domain name they want," she says. "But there isn't a shortage of domain names. There's a shortage of space in people's heads."


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

 

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