June 20, 2012

ICANN opens up a can of worms


This spring, ICANN, the body that determines which domain names can be used on the Internet and which are out of bounds—last year they finally agreed to the domain name “.xxx” for porn sites after years of debate—allowed organizations to propose new possibilities for what’s called “generic top-level domain names”, or gTLDs. The gTLDs we’re all familiar with are your standard .net, .com, .org, and institutional TLDs like .edu and .gov, and at the moment there are only 22 in use worldwide. But ICANN is opening up the floodgates, permanently, for the creation of thousands of new domain names. And not surprisingly, Amazon and Google were at the front of the line. PC World reports:

“The gTLD ‘google’ was claimed by Charleston Road Registry along with 100 others including ‘search,’ ‘store’ and ‘youtube.’ The company appears to be acting for Google. ‘App’ was applied for by 13 companies, including Amazon, through its European subsidiary, and Google.”

The two giants applied for many of the same domain names, including .cloud, .shop, .store, .search, .play, .mail, .music, .movie and .game. Google and Amazon both also applied for .book, as did Bowker, the company that serves as the official ISBN agency for the U.S. and Australia. Facebook and Twitter didn’t bother to apply, which is surprising in light of Facebook’s aggressive legal efforts to control use of the word “book” in website names. Though perhaps, as this MobyLives report suggests, they’ve simply found a sneakier way to do it by asserting trademark right over the word “book” in their new user agreement.

ICANN is now reviewing the applications and competing companies will probably have to outbid each other for the ultimate right to use particularly desirable gTLDs. This, of course, is on top of the $185,000 applicants paid to submit an application and the annual fee of $25,000 winners can expect to pay. In the past, there’s been criticism that ICANN’s control over domain names means an Internet that’s U.S.- and English-language-centric. Though 116 of the applications were for “internationalized” domain names (IDNs) written using non-Latin scripts—the system to handle IDNs has only recently been standardized and used worldwide—the sheer cost of the application process meant that old hierarchies have largely stayed in place: North America accounted for 911 applications, Europe 675, Asia-Pacific 303. There were only 24 applications from Latin America and 17 from Africa.

The CEO of ICANN was completely unconcerned about the idea of a level playing field, either internationally or between larger and smaller companies. Tom Brewster writes in TechWeekEurope:

“ICANN’s CEO Rod Beckstrom told TechWeekEurope there would not be a limit on how many gTLDs a company could get, despite concerns of domination of such domains by richer businesses. It also denied any claims that it was locking out smaller companies by setting the barrier for entry at a high cost.”

The complete listing of the applicants and the domain names is available here and makes for interesting reading. And also suggests that you may have more to type in the near future: “.travelersinsurance,” anyone?


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.