Debate swirls around ICANN plan to fast-track new top-level domains

ICANN plan to add hundreds of new domain name extensions hits critical juncture

A controversial plan to introduce hundreds of new top-level domains into the Internet has reached a crossroads: The plan will either be accelerated or delayed based on public comments due at the end of January.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is seeking feedback on a proposal to create a pre-registration process for organizations that want to apply for new domain name extensions, such as .jazz, .sport and .food.

If approved, the proposal would require applicants to submit a document indicating their intention to bid on new top-level domains along with a deposit of $55,000 prior to submitting their complete applications. The pre-registration process could launch as early as June 2010.

The pre-registration process is "a game changer for considering new top-level domains because it significantly accelerates the timetable for a business to make a decision," says Roland LaPlante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Afilias, which operates the .info and .org domains. "It doesn't require a full application. It doesn't require you to think out your internal business plan. But it does require a go/no-go decision."

VeriSign CTO Ken Silva says that few CIOs at U.S. companies are aware of ICANN's new top-level domain plan or the potential for it to be accelerated through the proposed pre-registration process.

"It doesn't appear that it's really on a lot of radar screens," Silva says. "Where it is a concern is that it's possible someone may try to register a domain that infringes on their territory."

The Internet currently supports 280 top-level domains, including .com, which is the most popular, and country codes such as .de for Germany and .cn for china.

ICANN has been talking about dramatically increasing the number of top-level domains since 2007. But it was in October 2009 that potential bidders came up with the idea of an immediate pre-registration process for domain name applications.

The pre-registration process – dubbed "Expressions of Interest'' or EOI for short -- is designed to give the ICANN community a realistic estimate of the number of top-level domain applications to expect, along with a list of who plans to apply for which domain name extensions.

"The [pre-registration] process has been proposed as a way for ICANN to get a real indication from real potential bidders about their actual intent," LaPlante says. "There's some debate about how much money should be required up front, how much information will be required, and whether the information will be revealed to the public."

Comments on the "Expressions of Interest" proposal are due to ICANN by Jan. 27.

So far, ICANN has received 40-plus comments, which are split evenly between those in favor and opposed to the pre-registration process.

Proponents of the pre-registration process include organizations planning to bid on the new domain name extensions.

The opposition includes trademark attorneys and U.S. corporations including H.J. Heinz and Lockheed Martin, who say the pre-registration process is premature because the application process is not finalized.

"A number of the most eager applicants have put forward this idea of the Expressions of Interest to accelerate the application deadline," says Steven Metalitz, a member of ICANN's Intellectual Property Constituency and a partner with law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. "You would have to step forward in the EOI round or not be considered. In effect, it's like ICANN saying we don't know what route this race is going to take or the shape of the track, but we're going to fire the starting gun anyway."

If the pre-registration process is not approved, applications for new top-level domains are expected to slip until 2011, as ICANN wrestles with outstanding trademark and cybersecurity issues.

U.S. corporations with large portfolios of domain names are seeking special protections for trademark owners to prevent cybersquatting and other deceptive practices such as phishing. These corporations are trying to avoid spending large sums of money purchasing their company and brand names in all of the new domain name extensions that ICANN approves.

ICANN has set a deadline of Jan. 26 for comments on a proposal to create a trademark clearinghouse and other protections for trademark owners that will be mandatory for the new top-level domains.

The proposal "has pretty broad support within the ICANN Intellectual Property Constituency, and it includes some safeguards," Metalitz says. "The most important element of it is that in addition to the [Uniform Dispute Resolution Process] that allows you to go after cybersquatters, there will be a Uniform Rapid Suspension System that is a quicker take-down process for clear-cut cases."

The introduction of new top-level domains is likely to shake up the domain name industry, which is experiencing growth despite the overall economic downturn.

More than 187 million domain names were registered across all top-level domains in September 2009, according to VeriSign. Half of the registered names – 94.9 million – are registered in the .com and .net domains, which are operated by VeriSign.

ICANN says the new top-level domains will provide more innovation, choice and competition on the Internet, especially for non-English language domains. The new domains can be anywhere from three to 63 characters in length and can support Chinese, Arabic and other scripts.

So far, dozens of groups have announced plans to apply for new top-level domains, representing cities such as .paris, regions such as .africa, charities such as .green, and generic terms such as .food and .wine. Some companies plan to reserve their own names such as .deloitte.

"How many new top-level domains are we likely to get? Nobody knows the answer," LaPlante says. "We know from our own marketing efforts that there are probably hundreds of bidders out there."

LaPlante says it's unclear how the Internet's DNS will scale to support hundreds of new top-level domains at the same time that it is being upgraded to support IPv6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, and new DNS security extensions. "There are a number of questions of the risks involved in all of this happening together," LaPlante says.

ICANN is expected to make decisions about the pre-registration process, trademark protection and other outstanding issues related to the new top-level domains at its next meeting, which will be held in Nairobi in March.

This story, "Debate swirls around ICANN plan to fast-track new top-level domains," was originally published at NetworkWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in LANs/WANs at Network World.

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