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Domain Names: Debating the Effects of a Dot-Anything World

January 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
ICANN, the company that assigns what are called domain names for the Web is making a big change and rolling out a program to dramatically increase the number and kind of names available. However, that could prove to be a costly endeavor for some businesses. Ray Suarez leads a debate over the effects of the new rules.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, One of the Internet’s gatekeepers is starting to sell new Web site names and categories. Why does that matter?

Ray Suarez looks at the stakes.

RAY SUAREZ: Since the earliest days of the Internet, Americans have gone to Web addresses with familiar names to the right of the dot, as in dot-com or dot-org.

Starting today, the company that assigns what are called domain names is making a big change. It’s rolling out a program meant to dramatically increase the number and kind of names. So, instead of a company like let’s say Marriott being called Marriott.com, it might now choose to be called simply .Marriott.

But it is going to cost plenty, up to $185,000 just to apply for the new name. And the total economic stakes could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. Some businesses and lawmakers are upset with what this could mean for commerce and the future of the Web.

We look at this now with Rod Beckstrom, the president and CEO of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. And Dan Jaffe is with the Association of National Advertisers, which is part of a coalition opposed to the rollout of the program.

Now, Mr. Beckstrom, inside the trade press, it’s all full of just the shorthand GTLD. What is a generic top line domain, so we know what are talking about?

ROD BECKSTROM, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers: Sure.

It’s the name that is to the right of the dot on the Internet. And so it’s sort of the top and the hierarchy in the domain name system. So, think dot-com, dot-net, dot-org as examples that many people know.

RAY SUAREZ: In the short history of the Web, people have gotten very used to using it and are familiar with the suffixes, dot-gov, dot-edu, dot-com, dot-org.

What does making it possible to buy the top level, the signifier accomplish?

ROD BECKSTROM: Well, we opened it up because, for example, you mentioned dot-gov. That is only usable by one government, the United States government, here.

And other governments don’t have those same choices. They would like to. The Internet is now used by two billion people around the world, and everyone would like to enjoy equal access.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dan Jaffe, why not? It sounds like it would make it easy, useful to have your corporate name as your topline domain. Why not?

DAN JAFFE, Association of National Advertisers: We don’t think that there is a problem with having more top-level domains.

We are very concerned, however, that this basically unlimited increase in top-level domains is going to impose enormous costs on business, costs that will basically mean that people will be buying their own trademarks to protect them against others who may harm them. And it’s going to be a serious problem for consumers.

What we are talking about here — and Mr. Beckstrom said this at a meeting yesterday — is that some people are estimating that we are going to go from 22 top-level domains to as many as 4,000 domains within one year, and then, after that, who knows.

And we also know that to the left of the dot, which are the secondary domains, increase far more than that. At the present time, there is more than 100 million secondary domains in this 22 top-level domain situation. What happens when you have hundreds, thousands of new domains? This is going to create enormous problems for those who try to monitor the Internet against Internet crime.

RAY SUAREZ: How about that? Haven’t companies spent a lot of time, money and outreach building part of their corporate identity around a name like CNN.com, Expedia.com? Doesn’t this force them to have to rebrand, when they don’t really want to?

ROD BECKSTROM: Well, nobody has to rebrand.

This is entirely offering more choices. And I want to correct the record here. There’s not 4,000 a year. There is a board resolution where the maximum number is 1,000 per year that can be added to the Internet. And there’s many companies that are interested.

If you read the Wall Street Journal article yesterday, you will see many entrepreneurs that are looking at starting new businesses and offering new services with new ideas with new top-level domains. No existing companies have to go apply for a new top-level domain. It’s an option for them to consider.

RAY SUAREZ: But what about Dan Jaffe’s point that, for years, some speculators have been buying domain names, not because they want to use them, but because they want to sell them to people who really need them, even buying the names of well-known products and companies, so that some day down the road when that company may want it, they will have to be the ones to sell it to them?

ROD BECKSTROM: The smartest intellectual property attorneys in the world have been wrestling over this program for six years, and have added nine different components to provide protections for trademark holders, so that that kind of activity is discouraged to the greatest extent possible.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Dan Jaffe, doesn’t that $185,000 price tag discourage squatters? Where you could have bought a domain name pretty cheaply once upon a time, that’s pretty high table stakes for somebody who wants to buy it on spec.

DAN JAFFE: It is certainly something that raises the cost.

And, in fact, top-level domain sellers have said, if you want a top-level domain, that, in fact, you may need up to $800,000 to a million dollars, at minimum, for all of the various costs that would be involved. And that would have nothing to do with the situation where you have an auction, where people are fighting over a name, which can go into the multimillions of dollars.

But there is a group called CRIDO, the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Oversight, which represents 161 associations, groups and companies, that are opposing this rollout as premature, who all believe that this is going to create major pressures on companies to do defensive registration or dramatically increase the amount of tracking that they will have to do of the Internet, and cost them millions of dollars in that regard.

And they have strongly said that it would be premature to roll this out at this time. And another point that is very significant is, there are substantial holes in the system that have been pointed out by the Federal Trade Commission, by other police organizations around the world, by the interagency organizations like…

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of holes do you mean, just so we know what we’re talking about?

DAN JAFFE: Very, very serious situations where, if you start — one of the protections that has been built into the system, or alleged protections that has been built into system, is something called a thicker “who-is” approach, which would give you more information, supposedly, about who actually owns an I.P. address, an Internet address.

But when you go and look at it, you find names like Mickey Mouse, or Donald Duck, or God, or Bill Clinton, but it’s not Bill Clinton who is behind it. And you can’t get behind those names to find this out. This is why the FTC wrote a letter to ICANN and said, “The unprecedented increase in domain registries only increases the risk of a lawless frontier in which bad actors violate contractual provisions with impunity, resulting in practices that ultimately harm consumers.”

RAY SUAREZ: Stop right there. Let me get a response from ICANN and Mr. Beckstrom.

ROD BECKSTROM: Sure.

This program has been developed by the global Internet community. And I understand you are representing the ANA, which is the interests of advertising companies, one category of entities, primarily in America.

But we have to look at the global picture. Six years have been spent to add additional protections. For example, you can’t apply for a top-level domain that would be a type of squatting domain. We would never approve it. You have to demonstrate what you’re going to use it for and explain your use. So, actually, it could help reduce typosquatting at the…

RAY SUAREZ: What about the notion that the “who-is” part is still pretty porous, that you can buy a Bill Clinton domain and not be Bill Clinton?

ROD BECKSTROM: You know, we can bring to this table law enforcement, which I have tremendous respect for — I have worked for law enforcement myself in the federal government — and bring in the privacy groups and civil rights and civil liberties, and they are not going to agree on how “who-is” should be implemented.

One group wants privacy. Another group wants more law enforcement accuracy. The ICANN community brings together all of these parties to develop consensus views, consensus documents.

And, in fact, we just had open public comment period on how we can improve some of our agreements related to “who-is,” and we are in negotiations right now. And these things are processes that are ongoing. And there are improvements in this program that the previous programs didn’t have.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, before we go, I want to hear from both of you.

This is a world that, so far, up until today, has been managed with a minimum of government interference from governments around the world. Can it continue to be so, Mr. Jaffe?

DAN JAFFE: We think that that is the right approach. We do not believe…

ROD BECKSTROM: Thank you.

DAN JAFFE: You’re welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

DAN JAFFE: We are one of the strongest supporters for self-regulation, where it works, where, in fact, the real concerns are met.

But we’re finding, you know, the U.N., NATO, the WHO, IGO groups, 38 of these groups, not-for-profits, FTC, the whole of the business community of — that is very concerned about this and says that there are serious holes. You wouldn’t ask someone to come on a ship and be able to say, there are holes in that ship, and, by the way, it should cost you millions of dollars to buy your way on to get that ticket, and then say, sail out.

We think that this is very, very reckless.

RAY SUAREZ: And…

ROD BECKSTROM: Ray, there are no easy holes that could be fixed in this program. That’s why it took six years of many of the smartest people in the world haggling over paragraphs and details.

The rule book is 300 pages of documentation, very well-thought-out program. In fact, one of your attorneys yesterday said, well, why don’t you go in a room for 10 minutes and solve this?

And I said, if you think you can solve that in 10 minutes, I invite you, please come to our next public meeting in Costa Rica, sit down with law enforcement, the civil society groups, governments, come up with a solution.

The reality is, these are tough problems because — and here’s why. The Internet is – there’s one Internet for one world. The system has integrity. The trademark system is divided into categories and geographies. Any trademark term you take, there could be hundreds or even thousands of legitimate different owners in the world.

In the domain name system, every name is exactly unique, so that the emails, when they are sent to you, get just to you, and not to five other people, because that would fracture the Internet. ICANN has to main — that integrity.

RAY SUAREZ: Rod Beckstrom, Dan Jaffe, gentlemen, thank you both.

DAN JAFFE: Thank you so much.