Pat Pilcher: Domain name ding dong

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Image  / Thinkstock
Image / Thinkstock

The internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation who looks after internet domain names such as www.nzherald.co.nz is soon to put a new wrinkle on internet addresses that will incorporate new top level domains (the last part of an internet address, these are otherwise known as TLDs).

At the moment there are 22 Top Level Domains which include .com and .org and so on. Under the proposed changes any generic top level domain would be possible, so a website could have an address such as http://mzrfu.rugby.

This is also good news for big brands who will also be able to obtain their existing domain name and customise it. Indications are that some organisations have already applied for generic top level domains with early applications said to include .toys, .fitness, and .flights, as well as brands such as .bmw.

The move to allow customised top level domains could will also allow top level domain names in other languages including Chinese, Arabic and Korean and foster stronger online identities for established brands.

There's also downsides.

The dark side of this move to more customised top level domain names is that some top level domains could end up under the exclusive control of an individual brand. In theory this could see one organisation having the ability to exclude competitors from using a top level domain - which could in turn have the potential to stifle competition.

To date there's been over 2,000 applications for custom top level domains, and indications are that some applicants have filed applications for custom top level domains with the aim of controlling those top level domains as closed registries, meaning that the applicants gain a means of effectively excluding competitors from registering a domain name that use the same customised top level domain.

Closed registry top level domains already applied for so far include .search, .blog, .insurance, .hotels, .makeup, .store, .food, .grocery, .cloud, .app, .antivirus, .music, .game, .book, .news.

The existing internet domain name registration system mightn't be perfect, but at the moment it is a level playing field in that anyone can apply for domain name (as long as the domain hasn't already been taken). The move to offer a closed registry option for custom domain names and to put that control in the hands of businesses with a vested interest in keeping competitors out is especially worrying.

Worse still, because these domains are also easily renewed, this situation could in theory continue in perpetuity with few controls or oversight to prevent abuse. Implications for competitive abuse aside, it could also be argued that offering a closed registry option could also harm levels of online diversity.

Given our already-huge levels of reliance on search engines such as Google, closed registries and generic domains could in theory result in limited and narrowed search results that effectively reduce consumer choice as people searching for blogs, insurance, hotels, and apps are directed to the products or services of a single company rather than the massive pool of rich information available online.

Under this scenario, innovation also becomes the loser. Here's hoping that search engine optimisation experts can navigate around this one.

The move for specific closed registries for custom top level domains could also have huge impacts on kiwi companies who could suddenly find themselves excluded generic domain names. Global NZ brands such as Fonterra could find themselves excluded from registering a domain such as Fonterra.co.milk. This could in turn see their global brand equity diminished whilst a competitor in the dairy space effectively monopolises the .milk top level domain.

Given how much is potentially at stake, levels of interest around this issue are understandably huge and ICANN is seeking feedback on how best to handle this issue.

Submissions are due by 7 March 2013 here. ICANN are understood to be wanting feedback on two particular parts of this issue. First and foremost they are seeking feedback on "how to determine whether a string is generic" and also "the circumstances under which a particular TLD operator should be permitted to adopt 'open' or 'closed' registration policies."

The issue of closed registries is expected to create significant amount of debate.

Opponents to the closed registry concept are likely to argue that ICANN should require that any custom top level domain names be opened up for free access to all companies. Alternatively, some are calling for a middle-ground option that would not forbid "restricted" custom top level domain names but would still see controls being applied.

For example, under this scenario, access to the ".bank" top level domain name would be restricted to verified banking institutions.

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