Dot-pizza anyone? ICANN stokes demand for new Internet top-level domains

© iStockphoto.com / rsiel
© iStockphoto.com / rsiel
Posted: June 22, 2012

After a year of anticipation, the big Internet land rush is under way, and large companies, cities, and other prospectors are staking claims. It's not yet clear whether the new rules will affect the Internet's functioning. But the new look could take some getting used to — and perhaps stir a fair amount of confusion along the way.

The land rush was triggered last June by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, when it decided to dramatically expand a landscape long dominated by addresses ending in familiar suffixes.

Corporate domains such as Apple.com and Ford.com were so generic and predictable that a generation of Web companies came to be known as "dot-coms." In the worlds of nonprofits, colleges and government, "dot-org," "dot-edu" and "dot-gov" served the same role.

But if ICANN goes ahead as planned, we're likely to encounter a wave of new so-called "top-level domains" within the next year — domains that may come to replace the com in many dot-coms' home addresses. Last week, ICANN announced that it had received 1,930 applications to register more than 1,400 new top-level domains.

Some of the new domains would create fancy new addresses for multibillion-dollar corporations, familiar cities, or valuable brands. Proposed new suffixes include dot-Apple, dot-NFL, dot-Rio, and even dot-Transformers, a domain proposed by Hasbro International, the toy company.

Other generic new domains would be more downscale, though very descriptive. Four companies have proposed dot-pizza, for example, and similar numbers have proposed dot-poker, dot-soccer, and dot-casino.

Parts of the new landscape might also appear quite foreign to Americans and others comfortable with an English-dominated Web. For the first time, ICANN is expanding top-level domains beyond the so-called ASCII standard that has required the use of some English characters even in some non-English addresses.

When the new standards are fully implemented, some Web addresses will be rendered fully in the Cyrillic alphabet, or in Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, or Japanese.

One obvious beneficiary of the land rush is ICANN itself, which required a nonrefundable $185,000 fee for the new-domain applications. The nonprofit organization says about a third of the $357 million in fees will be set aside to cover the costs of failures at companies that serve as registries for top-level domains — companies such as Afilias Ltd., an Irish company with U.S. headquarters in Horsham, that also stand to profit if the number of domain registrations explodes.

You may never have heard of Afilias, but chances are you've been to one of its servers as you roam the Web. If you go to an address ending in ".org" or ". info," your Web browser will first query one of Afilias' servers, since Afilias owns rights to the dot-info top-level domain, and operates dot-org under contract.

Dot-info includes about eight million websites, says Afilias spokesman Vance Hedderel, and another Afilias top-level domain, dot-mobi, is home to about one million. It also manages many top-level domains specific to countries.

Now Afilias is eager to expand its reach. Hedderel says it applied to run more than 30 of the new generic top-level domains, including the Chinese versions of dot-info and dot-mobi, and proposed new English domains such as dot-app, dot-casino, dot-inc, dot-organic, and dot-blog.

As you might imagine, some of those domains have attracted considerable interest. Although Apple itself has apparently set its sights on just one new top-level domain — dot-Apple — a dozen other applicants have proposed to run dot-app. Among those Afilias is up against are Google and Amazon, which have each proposed dozens of new top-level domains.

ICANN has designed a complex, lottery-style process for deciding who gets to run such sought-after domains, but debate on the process may continue when ICANN's leadership, which meets three times a year, begins its next gathering this Saturday in Prague.

Do the new top-level domains pose any new threats?

At least some of ICANN's critics, such as Internet consultant and blogger Lauren Weinstein, worry they might.

When an Afilias executive said in an interview that a company's owning its own top-level domain would protect it from spam, phishing and other kinds of Internet malware, Weinstein called it "the big lie."

Instead, Weinstein said the expansion in the number of new top-level domains "will enable vast new empires of spam, phishing, malware, and the rest, because bad players will forge and use other obfuscation techniques to confuse Internet users via those names."

Hedderel rejects Weinstein's concerns. "Each major registry has become far more sophisticated over the past few years about security and bad players," he says.

David Brumley, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, says the truth is probably somewhere in between. He says that new domains shouldn't be any more vulnerable than current ones, but that the proliferation of Web addresses could add to Web users' confusion.

"What's been soundly rejected in computer science is that you can create a new top-level domain that is totally secure," Brumley says.

But exploiting people's mistakes — the "human element" — is key to phishing and other forms of Web mischief. So when the landscape changes, you'll want to pay close attention.

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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