ICANN finally approves expansion plan for top-level domains

Controversial process to add hundreds of alternatives to .com, .net and .org

After four years of debate, Internet policymakers on Monday approved a controversial plan to introduce hundreds of new domain name extensions to the Internet infrastructure at a special meeting in Singapore.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has been tinkering with its plan for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) in response to recent criticism from governments, which wanted more control over the process.

Having responded to most of the governmental concerns, ICANN's board of directors voted to proceed with the new gTLD program as expected. The board vote was 13 approving, 1 opposed and 2 abstaining.

DETAILS: ICANN approves change to Internet's Domain Name System

Currently, the Internet has 22 gTLDs, including .com, .net and .org. Nearly 210 million domain names were registered as of May 2011, with .com names accounting for more than 90 million of them, according to Verisign.

ICANN called the new gTLD program one of the biggest changes ever to the Internet's DNS.

"ICANN has opened the Internet's naming system to unleash the global human imagination," Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of ICANN, said in a statement. "Today's decision respects the rights of groups to create new Top Level Domains in any language or script. We hope this allows the domain name system to better serve all of mankind."

ICANN will accept applications for new gTLDs from Jan. 12, 2012 to April 12, 2012, with awards expected in 2013. ICANN has created an Applicant Guidebook, currently in its seventh version, which outlines the details of the application process.

"We feel this is a big market, and we do know a number of brands and trademarks who are considering this," said Alexa Raad, CEO of Architelos, a Reston, Va., startup offering consulting services to new gTLD applicants. "They may be able to monetize their online traffic that is now spread across multiple social media sites. It may be an opportunity to provide better security and have greater control over user interactions."

For CIOs and other executives who haven't focused on how new gTLDs will affect their online business, "now is the time to panic,'' said Roland LaPlante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Afilias, which provides registry services for .info, .org and 13 other top-level domains. "You need to get your team together and make a go/no-go decision about whether to apply. You need to get busy with the application, which has 50 questions ... 22 of them relate to technical issues.''

ICANN has spent years trying to build consensus around its new gTLD program with groups such as domain name registries and registrars, intellectual property holders and governments from around the world.

BACKGROUND: ICANN: New domains coming in 2010

The program faced last-minute objections from ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which wants the authority to veto proposed domains that it finds offensive, such as pornographic terms or hate speech. ICANN has proposed an early warning system that allows individual governments to issue objections to domain name extensions, and gives applicants the ability to withdraw their proposals and receive a partial refund of their application fees. If applicants forge ahead anyways, the GAC would need to reach a consensus opinion that a particular string should not be added to the Internet.

"This has been a very serious objection from governments; they want the authority to say this string is objectionable, and we don't want it in the root," LaPlante said. "ICANN is working out a process."

Another outstanding issue is how ICANN will handle registries that fail. One requirement for applicants is that they have enough funds in escrow to support three years of registry operations, but it's unclear how much money that will be. One option is for applicants to pool their money to create an insurance fund that can handle the damage should a registry fail. Another option is to create emergency registries that can step in and operate failing registries so that registrants have time to transfer their online activities to a different domain.

"ICANN is trying to make sure that these new registries have a continuity plan, so if they fail, the registrars aren't left holding the bag," LaPlante said. "ICANN has been working with a whole lot of models."

Debate also continues around the service level agreements that ICANN will require for registries as well as the protection of rights for trademark owners.

The domain name industry is waiting to see how many U.S. corporations will register their own names, for example, .ibm or .canon. Few have announced their plans so far, but DNS industry executives say many are preparing behind the scenes to do so.

BY THE NUMBERS: New TLD Sightings

"We're seeing an accelerating interest in corporations in the United States and Europe," LaPlante said. "Nobody wants to talk about their interest; everybody has sworn us to secrecy. ... Many of them don't have a specific use for the gTLD. They're not sure what they're going to do with it; they simply want to get it for defense purposes and will evolve it over time."

Companies can expect to spend a half-million dollars to apply for their own gTLD. That includes an ICANN application fee of $185,000, plus extensive amount of research and documentation to answer all of the detailed questions that ICANN includes in its application process.

"For some brands, this is a unique opportunity that hasn't been there before and won't come again for another couple years," Architelos' Raad said. "But with opportunities, there is also risk, too. This is not the kind of business where you put out a product, and maybe it doesn't work, and you can throw it off the shelf. There is no easy exit in this business."

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