There are big changes coming in top level domain names, so far dominated by .com and a handful of others. Others, such as .nz, act as geographical indicators on the Internet. Now much of that may change. Or maybe not. Or maybe become increasingly irrelevant.
With big changes comes big uncertainty. So much so that future predictions are anyone’s guess. Big changes are also fertile ground for some to make lots of money while most will see numbers that looked great on a spreadsheet crumble.
Add in people anxious to advance or protect their agendas, from regional identity to intellectual property protection to community interests. Governments too are flexing their muscles in advancing their varying national interests. It’s not surprising then that all of this forms an explosive mixture for controversies and heated debates.
At the centre of all of this is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This is the not-for-profit private body that oversees the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) which controls and operates the domain name system’s root zone, under contract from the US Department of Commerce.
ICANN is no stranger to controversy, lurching from one to the next. Yet this is only symptomatic of the incredibly difficult task of listening to the full spectrum of stakeholders while never forgetting its primary goal- the stability and security of the Internet.
Following two years of policy development, ICANN kicked off the current round of expansion in 2008 and in June 2011 approved the launch of the New gTLD Program. When the application window closed in May last year, ICANN had received 1,930 applications for 1,409 new top level domain names.
The .music ‘string’ got 8 applications and is a good example of some of the concerns raised about the applications and process.
The application from Amazon for .music attracted an ‘early warning’, a signal that a Government has concerns, from Australia. The objection is that Amazon “is seeking exclusive access to a common generic string (.music) that relates to a broad market sector.” The Australian Government suggests that Amazon “should specify transparent criteria for third party access to the TLD [top level domain]. These criteria should be appropriate for the types of risk associated with the TLD, and should not set anti-competitive or discriminatory conditions relating to access by third parties.”
For good measure, the Australian Government has lodged similar objections to many “common generic strings” such as .cloud, .doctor, .search, and .sucks. Many others have similar concerns about the potential anti-competitive results from handing over “closed generic” names like .music to a corporation to do whatever it wants with the domain name.
Other applicants have different plans for .music. One applicant, .music LLC, is owned by Far Further, a group representing traditional music interests, including the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). RIAA is known to be aggressive in protecting the interests of its members and has been at the forefront of enforcing copyright around the world.
No surprise then that .music LLC says, “We saw this as a tremendous opportunity to not only give a home and a singular identity to musicians, songwriters and creators of all kinds, but to also provide essential safeguards not currently available to the music community.” (emphasis added). What kind of “safeguards”? Their application gives some clues, such as domain name applicants would require “membership in at least one existing association related to the creation and support of music“.
The application is quite clear on this point, “As a restricted TLD, .music will effectively support the community’s interests in protecting IP rights and will be unavailable to those known to operate outside the legal IP paradigm.” Translation: toe our copyright line to join the club.
.music LLC has one advantage over other applicants. It is only one of two amongst the 8 applicants that have applied as a “community”. If accepted, this gives their application priority over the other 6.
Capturing “closed generic” top level domains, whether for commercial gain, enforcing intellectual property rights, or any other narrow agenda has dismayed many in the Internet community. They are all upset over this new threat to an open Internet. These applications are, however, not prohibited under ICANN’s rules for new top level domains.
Others have put in objections as part of their long-running campaigns. For example, anti-Google group FairSearch has objected to Google’s applications for .search, .fly, and .map. Barnes & Noble has objected to several of Amazon’s applications including for .book, .read, and .author.
Possibly more in reaction to the 129 objections raised by the Australian Government than responding to the Internet community, ICANN called for public comments on “closed generic” applications. It noted that “Existing provisions of the New gTLD Program do not provide specific guidance on this issue. Potential new provisions may be considered based on the comment provided and analysis undertaken.” (emphasis added)
ICANN has asked for comments on the obvious but tricky questions arising. Who decides which names get to be called a generic one? Under what circumstances should a top level domain operator need to follow ‘open’ or ‘closed’ rules?
Not everyone agrees with the fears and arguments of the .control brigade. They believe in the supremacy of the market, i.e. if a domain name in the “closed generics” does not provide sufficient value or you and I don’t like it, then there are enough alternatives.
Another argument from the .irrelevant viewpoint is the economics of abundance. Right now, domain name choices within .com and the handful of other dominant ones are heavily constrained as the ‘best’ ones are already taken. Once hundreds of viable choices become available, it is much easier to get the ‘right’ domain name. Besides, once people start getting use to domain names that don’t end in .com or .co.nz, there is little advantage in requiring all top level domain names to be open to everyone.
Where I stand
My heart is with the .control folks. Surely we don’t want Amazon to control .music and Google to do whatever it wants with .search? Do we really want copyright maximalists controlling .music?
However, my mind is in the .irrelevant camp for all the reasons outlined above. But there is one more reason and that is innovation. The nature of innovation on the Internet shows how difficult it is to predict in advance how innovation happens. Technology-based innovation has a habit of surprising, being disruptive, and entirely unpredictable.
Who is to say that Google won’t do something new or exciting if it controls .search or .map? If they don’t, someone else might with search.whatever. In any case, Google or someone else could do something that changes all our current thinking about domain names. Control over .search doesn’t give Google the search market, even after accounting for searching replacing direct navigation.
Only time will tell whether .music and the other “closed generics” will be about control or irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things. And, maybe, the market.