Are You Ready for .anything? Generic Internet Domains on the Way


pcmag.com

Source: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2384854,00.asp

May 4, 2011 - If you're an individual, a business, a Fortune 500 company - what do generic top-level domains mean for you? A headache, that's what.

In the 1990s, the race to stake a claim on the Web lay mainly in one direction: .com. Now, more than a decade later, that race may be more like an Easter egg hunt - a frantic sprint to collect as many top-level domains (TLDs) as possible. But those eggs cost money to hold onto - a lot of it. Oh, and the rules aren't quite written yet, either.

At a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday morning, representatives of various industry groups will attempt to convince lawmakers that the Internet Center for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is ramming through what might be called "dot-anything" - generic domains from .airplane to .zebra, and everything in between.

Here's what businesses and individuals need to know, experts say: if you want to own your TLD, you'd better register it - and it will cost about the price of a house. Large companies like McDonalds should register ".mcdonalds", as then the giant hamburger chain can control every proposed domain name that includes the .mcdonalds suffix, experts say. Smaller businesses can survive, too, by banding together. And individuals? Unless your discretionary income is above six figures, forget it - a .com domain will suit you just fine.

The question, however, is how far should the process go? Does McDonalds need to own ".bigmac," ".mcd," or ".burger"? How about ".fastfood"? And that's where it gets tricky.

At that point, some fear, the land rush that gobbled up .com addresses will shift to generic TLDs. A version of that is going on now, with the March approval of the .xxx domain, which the adult industry vehemently fought and lost.

What's clear, however, is that the day of the gTLD is arriving soon. At the the House Committee on the Judiciary's Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet hearing on Wednesday, representatives from ICANN will square off against representatives from industry groups. Thousands of miles to the west, Digital Hollywood Spring will hold a session the same day to discuss the potential impact of a .music domain on Hollywood. And in mid-May, the International Trademark Association will address the gTLD issue in its own annual meeting.

Finalizing the process of applying for generic TLDs has taken years. In March, ICANN said that the guidebook for applying for a TLD would be finalized in June.

ICANN's position is that it's time to move gTLDs forward. When ICANN put forward the June timeframe, one of the members of the executive committee, Rita Rodin Johnston, an intellectual property lawyer and partner with Skadden Arps, said: "I think there has been a lot of talk and a lot of very robust debate on all sides of the issues. But I think if we continue, we can talk forever."

Industry executives expect that once the process opens, ICANN will process gTLD applications as fast as it can, to the tune of about 400 to 500 in the first round, and possibly up to 1,000 per year.

For $185,000, the fee ICANN set in 2008, you too can apply for a generic TLD - probably out of the reach of all but the wealthiest individuals, but one small businesses may have to consider. And that's if the TLD is available; applicants may have to bid for the proposed domain, and incur the costs of administering it.

he process is the same for a top-level domain used by billions of people; a so-called ".brand" TLD intended to serve a single registrant; or an open, unrestricted Latin character TLD in the mode of .com, Steven Metalitz, the counsel for the Coalition for Online Accountability, will testify in front of the House subcommittee. COA participants include the MPAA, RIAA, and the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) - perhaps the three most powerful intellectual-property groups in the world.

Big, small businesses need to own their own gTLDs

For enterprises, owning your own gTLD is a no-brainer, according to Ben Crawford, chief executive of CentralNIC and dotBrand Solutions, which will acquire and manage the TLD for clients.

"The typical trademark owner would love to have their own top level domain," because they become the gatekeeper for all domains with that suffix, Crawford said. "Every domain is under your complete control, with no fraud or phishing. It ends with the dot-brand. There's no consumer confusion."

That's not the case with generic .com, .net, or overseas addresses like .co.uk. While McDonalds could prohibit yucky.mcdonalds, it might have to litigate to force yuckymcdonalds.com out of business, or just buy up the domain itself. Misspellings, derivatives, and "typosquatting" remain problems in the established TLDs, and in the new .XXX domain as well.

"Disney.xxx is not a good thing for Disney," noted Nao Matsukata, senior policy adviser to the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) and to Alston & Bird, LLP.

According to COA's Metalitz, the new generic TLD contain some small level of safeguards against abusive domain-name registrations: a "sunrise" period where trademark or brand holders can pre-emptively file for domain names identical to their trademarks, as well as an IP claims service where second-level domain-name holders are warned if they share the same name as another party. Confusingly similar TLDs, such as ".komm" and its similarity to .com, will reportedly be prohibited, Crawford added. Finally, new registries will also be required to implement a "Uniform Rapid Suspension" service where the domain owner can quickly take down a typosquatting offender.

Additional security measures include improved WHOIS listings that will provide a unified database covering every registration in the top-level domain, so that consumers know exactly who owns what. There's also an expectation that certain strings (.bank, for example) would be expected to deploy appropriate levels of security, or else risk harm to consumers.

Still, Crawford noted, consider a company like France's Moet Hennessy Luis Vuitton (LVMH), which could register .lvmh, or .christiandior, or dior.lvmh, or many others. "If you're an organization with thousands of brands, do you need to get a top-level domain for the overall organization, or do a bit of both? There's lots of brand consultancies and branding hierarchy experts working with companies on this," he said. "It's a real challenge."

The complications and expense may seem like gTLDs may be beyond the reach of smaller businesses. In that case, Crawford recommends, businesses should band together.

In the case of .burger, for example, an industry association could acquire domain names and set policies for them, serving as a registrar as well as an association that would promote the legal profession or fast food, Crawford said.

Too fast, some say

The problem, according to Alan Drewsen, executive director of the International Trademark Association (INTA), is that the gTLD process moved too quickly forward, too fast for trademark holders to respond to the flood of domains. "We would have set a much more measured approach, launched another round, and then taken a step back" to evaluate it, he said.

Representatives of INTA, CADNA and others said they'll try to petition the House subcommittee to reconsider the process. Matsukata also said that CADNA may work to ask Congress to reconsider ICANN's governance, and thus force it to reconsider the gTLD policy.

The really pernicious scenario, according to Mei-Lan Stark, the treasurer of INTA and senior vice president for the Fox Entertainment Group, is that a brand owner turned registry owner may not be able to afford the upkeep of the TLD, and may want to walk away. In such a scenario, ICANN may reassign the gTLD.

"That may have no significance beyond the financial loss if the registry is generic, e.g. .film, but what if the brand owner acquired .brand?" where .brand represents the company's name, Stark said, in prepared remarks. "ICANN could sell that valuable piece of intellectual property to a competitor, to a third party, or to a third party with bad intentions. Any of those results will ruin, not just diminish the value of the brand."

In other words, Stark said, the brand owner would be forced to continue to operate the registry and not be able to get out. "This would be a disaster for the brand and its consumers," she said.