• New York Times Op-Ed Submission

last modified January 10, 2012 by tomlowenhaupt

In response to a December 25, 2011 New York Times "Expanding Internet Domains" editorial (see sidebar) calling for prudence in issuing new TLDs, and a recommendation that the ICANN's new TLD program begin with a pilot project,  we submitted the following Op-Ed.

Expanding Internet Domains
New York Times Editorial 12-25-2011

The-New-York-Times-T.jpgCome January, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers plans to allow businesses, nonprofits and others to apply for their own “top-level domain” with their own online suffix, like the familiar .com and .org suffixes that now rule the Internet.

Icann, the nonprofit that manages the Internet’s address system, says increasing the number of top-level domains will ease crowding and create opportunities for businesses to connect with consumers. For instance, Canon plans to buy .canon to put its Web sites in one spot and the American Bankers Association is reportedly considering .bank, where banks could offer secure online banking.

But a plethora of new suffixes is just as likely to cause confusion for consumers and enable malefactors to use the new arenas for deception. Icann expects 500 to 1,000 applications in next year’s 90-day application window. Before it approves any of them, it needs to slow down and put in place better safeguards against consumer fraud.

The expansion of top domains could be costly for businesses, which might have to buy new domains (Icann is charging $185,000 per application) to protect their brands from fraudsters making money by squatting on brands. The Web is full of sites that masquerade as legitimate companies to sell pirated goods or steal consumers’ financial information. Fraudsters avoid detection by registering their sites using proxy services and false identities. The administrators of the online address system — Icann, the registries that operate suffixes like VeriSign, and agents like GoDaddy that sell Internet addresses to the public — are doing a terrible job curbing fraud. A recent Icann report acknowledged that the system to identify Web site owners “is broken and needs to be repaired.”

Icann says it will increase security in the new domains, including thorough background checks of all applicants. There will be a clearinghouse for owners of trademarks, who would get first dibs on domains connected to their brand. If anybody but the Coca-Cola Company applied for .coke, he or she would have to prove a legitimate, non-infringing reason to run it. And there would be a “rapid takedown” procedure to close infringing domains.

But companies will still have to spend a lot on defense, registering domains to avoid squatting on their brands and keeping an eye out for potentially infringing Web sites across hundreds of new suffixes. And Icann’s current inability to deal with abusive domain name registrations undermines confidence in its ability to address the risks of this vast expansion.

The Federal Trade Commission is rightly urging Icann to require that registries and registrars be able to verify the identity of owners of all domains that have a commercial purpose, and to impose meaningful penalties for those who break the rules. There is no pressing need to create hundreds of new suffixes next year. It would be far better for Icann to start with a pilot program to work out problems before expanding the system. (See original in NY Times.)

A Path for New Top Level Domains

Faced with a rapidly growing Internet, the Clinton Administration in 1998 fostered the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, commonly called ICANN, to provide technical oversight for the globe spanning technology. ICANN's responsibilities included creating a mechanism for issuing additional Top Level Domains like the now familiar .com, .net, and .org.

After a fourteen year exploration, ICANN has announced that beginning January 12, for 90 days, it will open a filing window for new TLDs, and that anyone of good character, technical expertise, and the $185,000 filing fee will be eligible to apply. Estimates are that upward of 1,000 new TLDs might be issued.

Critics from congress, the media, business, and the Federal Trade Commission contend that ICANN has yet to institute suitable oversight for the 21 TLDs firmly under its jurisdiction, and that it is ill prepared to issue and maintain effective oversight of 1,000 additional ones. As well, they predict that confusion will result from this plethora of new TLDs, creating an open season for “fraudsters” of various types with negative impact on consumers and trademark owners.

All good arguments. But with .com bursting its seems with more than 90,000,000 names, and virtually every business, artistic, and social action the foreseeable future requiring a domain name, we need new TLDs. So what's to be done?

With the ICANN set to meet this week to evaluate a response to this criticism, I'd like to suggest a path. It emerged from a 2001 Internet Empowerment Resolution passed by a local community board calling for the acquisition and development of the .nyc TLD as a public interest resource. Here's the path.

ICANN should scrap its one-size-fits-all application process and adopt a measured step-by-step approach to the complicated issue. First issued should be city-TLDs: .london, .paris, .mumbai, .nyc... followed by the corporate - .canon, .google, .ibm... and finally, after ICANN has established and tested its processing and oversight structures, and with the public becoming acclimated to the new environment (see below), it can begin issuing the highly desired but problematic generic TLDs - .music, .sports, .news...

Starting with city-TLDs offers several advantages: First, there's a limited number of cities having the 1,000,000+ residents thought necessary to fruitfully benefit from a TLD, about 350. Indications are that no more than a dozen or so are considering an early adapter role. And opposition to this early adapter group will be moderated by the known nature of cities, respectful participants within domestic and international law.

The fundamental reasoning behind urging a priority for cities benefits from some hindsight. So put on your way-back glasses and imagine yourself in 1983, with Internet inventors Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn visiting New York, climbing City Hall's steps and saying to Mayor Koch that an important Internet enhancement was in the works. That they were calling it the Domain Name System (DNS) and using identifiers such as .com, .org and .edu. After explaining their expectation about this new technology's capacity for addressing the multiplicity of city needs, they conclude with a plea that the mayor gather the world's smartest minds in New York City – computer scientists, economists, anthropologists, governance experts, information architects, police, fire, city planners, transportation engineers, etc. – and help detail a prototype DNS for cities, one that others might use.

But as we all know, no one knocked on that City Hall door and the DNS was created without considering its impact on cities. And when the Internet escaped from the lab, the technology spread like a virus and changed the world for better and for worse. It's too soon to speak with certainty about the Net's impact on cities, but we know global search engines increasingly control resident access to local information, and that visitor access to local resources is similarly controlled. As well, the Net's global reach diminished cities' central role as face-to-face networking centers, with the consequences unknown. But by the miracle of complexity and blunder that opportunity to shape the Net to local advantage is again at hand.

Now turn those way-back glasses around to see the final, and perhaps most important reason, for leading with cities: their impact on life on earth. With more than 1/2 the global population now in urban areas, and the hopes for a sustainable planet increasingly centering on urban efficiencies, thoughtfully developed city-TLDs offer the potential of a huge payoff.

But introducing city-TLDs will not be a simple matter. To serve us well they will need to be secure and trustable. And with those features come the prospect of shredding personal privacy. So a clear review of the interplay between security and privacy are essential. Along with the comprehensive look mentioned above.

For ICANN's broader plans, city TLDs will provide an important education role. Today, when people see a city address with a street, avenue, circle, lane, or boulevard attached, the application of city planning standards has created expectations about what one will find on this older infrastructure. As domain names become trusted signposts for our new digital infrastructure, and residents and visitors faced with hotels.nyc, health.nyc, and schools.nyc learn that, like traditional addresses, the full resources of the city stand behind what they encounter there, city TLDs will have proven their worth and ICANN can begin the next step in its new TLD rollout.

Thomas Lowenhaupt is the founding chair of Connecting.nyc Inc., a non-profit advocating for the development of New York's TLD as a public interest resource.

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