The organisation of the internet was in the news last week, with the announcement from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body ultimately responsible for allocating internet addresses) that it ia about to expand the number of top level domains (TLDs) available. The TLD is the bit of your domain name after the last dot: the com, or uk, or info, or ru.
As those examples show, there are two kinds of TLD, the country codes (.uk, .ru, .fr and so on) and the international domains (.com, .info, .org – we tend to behave as if these were the property of the US, but in theory at least they are equally valid for all countries). (There’s a helpful list on Wikipedia, which explains in detail some points I have simplified here).
There are good arguments for being more flexible about the two letter country codes, if only to allow countries where the Latin alphabet is not used to have web addresses in their own language: if I were a Hellene, I might not be happy to have my website at a .gr address (representing "Greece", a name I didn’t call my country in a script I didn’t write in). Russia and China are two powerful countries who might also have something to say on this topic.
What will the additional general TLDs be, and what will they mean for us? We don’t entirely know yet: ICANN’s announcement says that the implementation plan is still being finalised, and will be published early in 2009. But they do give some examples of what is proposed:
"This proposal allows applicants for new names to self-select their domain name so that choices are most appropriate for their customers or potentially the most marketable. It is expected that applicants will apply for targeted community strings such as (the existing) .travel for the travel industry and .cat for the Catalan community (as well as generic strings like .brandname or .yournamehere). There are already interested consortiums wanting to establish city-based top level domain, like .nyc (for New York City), .berlin and .paris."
So someone might register.bank, and sell .bank addresses to – well, to banks. Or .shopping, and sell addresses to shops. While ICANN’s examples focus on organisations who want a domain which promotes who they are, other applicants will presumably want domains which they can sell profitably. There is a well-established lobby to establish a .xxx (or, indeed, .sex) domain for ‘adult’ sites, and ICANN give no indication of whether this may now be approved (though they do spell out that they will try to pass this hot potato on to "an international arbitration body utilizing criteria drawing on provisions in a number of international treaties" rather than make the decision themselves).
The Guardian predicts a "new net goldrush", as companies stampede to register every possible variation of their name: they quote Thomas Herbert of web hosting company Hostway:
"If the domain name system is completely relaxed, cybersquatting will turn into a far greater problem, with companies struggling to protect their websites and intellectual property… For example, Amazon would have to register many more domain names including Amazon.amazon, amazon.shopping, amazon.electronics."
To the extent that the expansion does seem to be driven by the desire for profit, I suppose that could happen; and I’m sure that some companies will panic and splash out on multiple versions of their domain, just as they do at present. Cornwell Internet already advises clients which of the options available they should register (.com, .org, .co.uk, .info – there’s quite a long list) . Occasionally it makes sense to have more than one, but we don’t recommend trying to collect the set. Sometimes there are perfectly good reasons why someone else wants ‘your’ name (www.juliadarling.co.uk and www.juliadarling.com are two different people, as are www.jennylewis.org.uk and www.jennylewis.com) and neither of you should be able to bar the other from the web! If someone has more sinister motives, well, there are laws against trying to gain an advantage by pretending to be someone you aren’t. Better to invoke those than try to think of every possible option: if someone is determined to impersonate you on the web, they can always find another domain to use.
So we don’t expect Cornwell Internet to be directly affected by these changes: we’ll wait and see what TLDs are released, whether it’s a fixed list or a free-for-all, and how much it’s likely to cost. On the other hand, we’re happy to advise about the existing TLDs. ICANN’s statement says "Presently, users have a limited range of 21 top level domains to choose from — names that we are all familiar with like .com, .org, .info." But you might not be familiar with .cat (for websites in the Catalan language or related to Catalan culture). Or .coop (for cooperatives as defined by the Rochdale Principles). And Roger points out that there is currently a special offer on .eu domains, and that if any of our clients is interested in emphasising the European nature of their activities, now would be a good time to contact him about it!