Dominion Over Domain Names

A proposal to add more domain names to the Internet has sparked a global controversy and could wind up posing a significant dilemma for companies and brands with an online presence.Amid a loud outcry of opposition from regulators, advertisers and major brands, an under-the-radar organization responsible for regulating the global Internet has begun accepting applications to create new domain categories — the suffixes to online addresses such as .com.

For $185,000, applicants would be able to register a new domain name that could theoretically give a company or group increased identity on the Internet. There are 22 generic domain names now in use. Critics say the expansion would squander money as companies are forced to defensively buy more names on domains they will never use. Regulators add that additional domains could increase scamming.

The dispute has risen to an even higher level over the role of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), with some Internet users and countries complaining that there should be less or more governmental control over the Internet. Some see ICANN, which is based in the United States, as a sign of too much American dominance in the future directions of the Internet.

Pretty heady stuff for three letters following a period.

Rod Beckstrom, ICANN's chief executive officer, defended the move to expand domain names by around 1,000 new ones per year going forward in an interview with NPR. He says there is demand for more top-level domain names, which will bring "more clarity and more quality" to the Internet. Beckstrom also says applicants for new domain names must pass qualification tests, including criminal and other background checks.

Those assurances aren't enough for Job Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, who says scammers make a practice of giving inaccurate information to hoodwink consumers. He doubts whether ICANN has the resources or capability to ferret out all the potential wrongdoing.

Douglas Wood, general counsel for the Association of National Advertisers, says expanded use of domain names will force businesses and brands to purchase "property rights that will never be used, never add to competition, never add to innovation, never do any of the things that ICANN is touting will be the great benefits of all these new top-level domains."

Where there is smoke, there is usually Congress as some Members have pressed the U.S. Department of Commerce to order ICANN to delay or even scrap the domain name expansion, which has been in the planning stage for seven years. ICANN was created by the Commerce Department.

That push has led to a new line of criticism about overweening control of Internet governance by U.S.-based interests. Critics note that half of all Internet users live in Asia and domain names should reflect world usage, not U.S. preference.

The issue could crescendo later this year when the International Telecommunications Union, which is affiliated with the United Nations, meets to discuss and perhaps rewrite global treaties on Internet regulation.

Internet analysts predict changes in Internet governance are unavoidable, but the question is whose priorities will emerge — governments, the private sector, technical groups, nongovernmental organizations or Internet users.

There is a huge clatter on the digital highway in the United States, which has spilled over into the halls of Congress, about keeping the Internet free and open. The dialogue in other nations, notably China, is quite different as Chinese officials actively censor Internet sites, as well as other media.

According to ICANN's website, applications will be accepted until April 12 for what it calls new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). The $185,000 evaluation fee will be reduced to $47,000 for a limited number of applicants who are community service organizations or from developing nations. Unless the process is stopped, new domain names could start appearing in Google searches as early as next year.