INTERNAUT—Commentary

Shawn McCarthy | Government should keep an eye on domain-name expansion

If the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has its way, the list of top-level Internet domain names is about to get much longer. Government offices might want to monitor this anticipated expansion in order to protect certain names and citizen expectations.

First, a little background. Most Internet users already are familiar with the concept of top-level domain names. These names serve as the trailing part of any domain name that you visit, including .gov, .com, .net, .edu and so on. There currently are fewer than 20 standard top-level domain names, plus top-level domains for all countries and some other organizations. Examples include .us for the United States, .fr for France or .nato for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (since retired, as NATO has moved to nato.int.) 

The big change proposed by ICANN is this: The list of top-level domains will become unlimited. That's according to Paul Levins, ICANN's executive officer and vice president for corporate affairs

"There could eventually be thousands," of top level domains in the next few years, Levins said. His example: Automobile companies might want to register cars.ford or cars.gm in addition to, or instead of, their current ford.com. or gm.com domains. If those companies choose to own their own top-level domain names, they could easily add their own subdomains, such as parts.gm or dealers.gm.

At the same time, ICANN is hoping to internationalize the text used when people type in top-level domains. For example, words such as .com or .gov or any other name could also be typed in using Chinese or Japanese symbols, or a host of other alphabets containing a wide variety of characters.

It's ambitious and complicated, but Levins said ICANN has spent over $13 million so far to research this expansion and its implications. He's is confident that they have thought things through, based on a lot of feedback from around the globe.

Keep in mind that, although governments have a voice in ICANN, they are not voting members. However, the U.S. government will still have control over its traditional .gov domain. The United States also controls the Internet's root server system, and it's unlikely to give up that management role, even as new domain names are added.

Another complicating factor: The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has raised questions about how ICANN will be able to monitor and enforce rules for such a large-scale transition. There are also looming issues about whether the full economic impact of this change has been properly studied and reported by ICANN.

So will this change have any affect at all on government agencies?

Quite possibly. Here are some of the looming issues.

  • Who should own and control state names? For example, should a domain such as .florida be controlled by the state government of Florida, or by a group of Florida businesses, or by the Florida tourism bureau?
  • Who should own and control imprecise terms that are also agency names? Some examples: Commerce, Defense, Agriculture, HomelandSecurity, or Justice?
  • What about person names? What if I want to register the name shawn.mccarthy, but discover someone has already registered the name .mccarthy, and won't sell me my domain name?

These issues are worth our consideration. Average citizens could be confused or even tricked by domain names, and governments need to help work through these issues.

Fortunately, there are several things that should keep the new top-level domains from turning into a new Wild West for name squatting.

First, keep in mind that being a top-level registrar is not the same as being an organization that sells commercial domains, such as GoDaddy.com or Dotster.com. Top levels are as tightly controlled as their owners and managers choose to make them. That's why the average Joe can't register a .gov or a .edu domain, but we can register just about any .com domain we might choose.

Second, it will cost $185,000 to set up a new top-level domain name and associated registry. That alone should weed out a lot of riff raff and domain speculation.

Third, ICANN will listen to groups of people that could elect to create geographic naming boards. – although his is more of a concept at this point than an official term. Using the Florida example again, a geographic naming board might form as a group of people who agree to make recommendations and to help coordinate a specific domain name. In theory, they would work out the control issue themselves, so that all .flordia interests are properly represented. For example, they might recommend several subdomains that each interest group could help control, such as government.florida, business.florida or travel.florida.

The sticking points will be whether such an approach can be standardized across the country and across the globe, and whether such groups can really represent the interest of all potential parties.

Thus, government agencies may discover that they do indeed need to become more involved in regional naming issues. That could be the only way they can make sure citizen interests are represented in this time of transition.

Visit www.icann.org/en/topics/new-gtld-program.htm for more information on top level domains.

Visit www.icann.org/en/topics/new-gtlds/strategy-faq.htm to understand the differences between generic top-level domains, country code top-level domains and international top-level domains.

NTIA has gathered its own public comments on ICANN's plan, plus those of other agencies, in a single set of documents. View them here: www.ntia.doc.gov/comments/2008/ICANN_081218.pdf

Reader Comments

Tue, Jul 14, 2009 Dave

Government should work to stop this expansion, not "keep their eye on it". This kind of expansion is nothing more than an attempt to line the pockets of ICANN, a “not-for-profit” where the CEO gets ~$700K a year that spends $57M a year including a $12M travel budget. Who is really going to goto software.microsoft or search.google??? Here is an alternative http://www.cnbc.com/id/31775270/ that regular Webmasters and the business community could wrap their arms around. There is now a Facebook group dedicated to stopping the ICANN expansion.

Sat, Apr 4, 2009 Antony Van Couvering New York

Hi - thanks for this article, it's one of the few I've read on this issue where the author has taken the time to understand some of the complications. I don't agree with everything said, but I am thrilled to see some legitimate commentary. For anyone interested in new top-level domains and how they work -- both in this present application stage, and later -- my company provides services to applicants, I write a blog on the subject, and our website has a lot of information resources. See http://www.mindsandmachines.com.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above