February 12, 2011

New domain names could be a mixed blessing

The pillar of the basic Web address - the trusty.com domain - is about to face vast new competition that will dramatically transform the Web as we know it. New websites, with more subject-specific, sometimes controversial suffixes, will soon populate the online galaxy: such as .eco, .love, .god, .sport, .gay or .kurd.

This enormous expansion to the Internet's domain-name system will either make the Web more intuitive or create more cluttered, maddening experiences. But with an infinite number of naming possibilities, an industry of Web wildcatters is racing to grab these potentially lucrative territories with addresses that are bound to provoke.

Who gets to run .abortion websites - people who support abortion rights or those who don't? Which individual or mosque can run the .islam or .mohammed sites? Can the Ku Klux Klan own .nazi on free-speech grounds, or will a Jewish organization run the domain and permit only educational websites, say, www.remember.nazi or www.antidefamation .nazi? And who's going to get .amazon - the Internet retailer or Brazil?

The decisions will come down to a little-known non-profit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose international board of directors approved the expansion in 2008 but has been stuck debating how best to run the program before launching it. Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is on the cusp of completing those talks in March or April and will soon solicit applications from companies and governments that want to propose and operate the new addresses.

Next week, hundreds of investors, consultants and entrepreneurs are expected to converge in San Francisco for the first ".nxt" conference, a three-day affair featuring seminars on ICANN's complicated application guidelines. The conference's website, is not without a sense of humor: "Join the Internet land rush!" a headline screams, above a photograph of Tom Cruise riding a horse in "Far and Away," the 1992 film about giveaways out West in the late 19th century.

These online territories are hardly free. The price tag to apply is $185,000, a cost that ensures only well-financed organizations operate the domains and cuts out many smaller grass-roots organizations, developing countries or dreamers, according to critics. (Rejectees get some of the application fee returned.) That's on top of the $25,000 annual fee that domain operators have to pay ICANN.

Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, a grass-roots firm in Los Angeles, said the new domains are designed purely to make money for ICANN and the companies that control the domains. The new Web addresses, he added, will only mean more aggravation for trademark holders and confusion for the average Internet user.

Peter Dengate Thrush, chair of the ICANN board of directors, said the high application fee is based on the non-profit's bet that it's going to get sued, and to protect against organizations that are ill-equipped to manage an entire domain of hundreds, if not thousands, of websites.

by Ian Shapira Washington Post Feb. 7, 2011 12:00 AM

New domain names could be a mixed blessing

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