Debate around a controversial plan to add hundreds of new domain name extensions to the Internet infrastructure has reached a fever pitch in the nation's capital, as critics engage in a last-ditch effort to scrap or delay the plan, which is scheduled to launch Jan. 12.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives have held hearings in the past two weeks on the plan by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to greatly expand the number of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) such as .hotel and .paris.
While U.S. Commerce Department officials have been supportive of ICANN's multi-stakeholder process for creating new gTLDs at these hearings, representatives of U.S. corporations and nonprofits say it will be a significant financial burden for them to protect their brand names and trademarks in so many new Internet names.
The loudest critic of ICANN's new gTLD program is the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which is conducting a full-court press to persuade the Commerce Department to force ICANN to stop or postpone the program's January launch. ANA's primary complaint is about the cost for U.S. corporations to purchase defensive registrations for their trademarks in the new name extensions.
"This cost alone could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per brand name, creating a multimillion dollar liability for major corporations and a multibillion dollar cost to the industry," Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president of government affairs at the ANA, told the Senate during its recent hearing on new gTLDs. Jaffe also cited concerns about consumer confusion resulting from the new Internet names as well as the risk of increased cybersquatting.
Angela Williams, senior vice president and general counsel of the YMCA, told senators that U.S. nonprofits are worried that "the enormous cost and financial burdens of the proposed structure of the new Generic Top-Level Domain Name Program will pose severe hardship and burdens on each of us. We also share concern about the increased risk of public confusion ... resulting from unauthorized use of organizational trademarks."
Another outspoken opponent of the new gTLD program is Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who on Dec. 16 sent a letter to ICANN stating that the new gTLD program as currently organized "could pose a significant threat to consumers and undermine consumer confidence in the Internet."
The FTC has asked ICANN for a number of changes to the program, such as reducing the number of new gTLDs that will be approved in the first round, monitoring consumer issues that arise during this round, and assessing each proposed gTLD from the perspective of consumer harm that it could cause.
Despite the loud criticism of the new gTLD program from many quarters, it appears that there is little that the FTC or U.S. Congress can do to stop or delay the ICANN plan. At a Dec. 8 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) admitted such and merely requested that ICANN "listen to our concerns as you go forward."
The House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a similar hearing Dec. 14, where members urged ICANN to run a pilot project first before opening up the Internet to hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of new domain name extensions. But the House also lacks authority to require this change.
Meanwhile, ICANN continues to defend its new gTLD program as the result of five years of debate that was open to all Internet stakeholders. ICANN says the hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of new gTLDs will increase competition, choice and innovation for organizations that do business online. ICANN also says the new gTLDs will offer better protection for intellectual property and better defense against malicious conduct than the original gTLDs, such as .com, .net and .org.
Kurt Pritz, senior vice president of stakeholder relations at ICANN, told the Senate committee that the new gTLD program "is consistent with ICANN's mission to increase consumer choice, competition and innovation. Organizations will now have the opportunity to apply for gTLDs in the scripts of the world's languages, to open the world's marketplace further and to welcome the next billion non-English speaking users to the Internet."
Experts predict the new gTLD program will kick off in January as planned.
"I'm cautiously optimistic" that ICANN will launch the new gTLD program on Jan. 12, said Alexa Raad, former CEO of the .org registry and now CEO of Architelos, which offers consulting services to domain name registries. Delaying the program is "a political risk not only to ICANN but to the Internet in general. The economic interests who have been planning and wanting new gTLDs are going to go forward and they are going to give up on the consensus-building approach taken by ICANN. ... It's going to fracture the DNS root and that's irrevocable harm."
ICANN has been debating its new gTLD program for five years and finally gave it the go-ahead in June.
Currently, the Internet has 22 gTLDs, including .com, .net and .org. More than 215 million domain names were registered as of August 2011, with .com names accounting for more than 90 million of them, according to Verisign.