Can ICANN Reverse the Law of Supply and Demand?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) made an announcement recently that inspired feelings of deja vu all over again. For those of you who may have missed it, the Internet firm received 10 applications for new sponsored top-level domains–you know, more “dot-something” suffixes. Providing just the kind of openness one hopes to see from such an important organization, ICANN included the proposed strings, sponsors, and sponsors’ Web addresses in its press release. This way, interested parties can go check out the sponsors before telling ICANN what they think; the public comment period is open all April.

Now I don’t know what kinds of comments ICANN is expecting, but I hope that whatever’s conveying the comments to them is flame-resistant. Why do I say that? Let me just put on my curmudgeon’s cap, climb aboard my Internet time machine, and I’ll show you.

First, let’s go back to the 1980s, when the World Wide Web was getting started. Back then, if you don’t count the domains that were tied to a particular country (like “.us” for the United States), there were only seven top-level domains: the well-known .com, .net, and .org, and the somewhat less well-known .edu, .gov, .int, and .mil. They weren’t sponsored, like the 10 that have just been proposed, but everyone pretty much knew what they were for: .edu for educational institutions, .org for not-for-profits, .gov for government, .int for international (for instance, the World Intellectual Property Organization uses that suffix), .net for large networks, .mil for military, and .com for…well, supposedly for “commercial,” but really just for everything that didn’t fit under the other domains. These set meanings have blurred and diluted over time–especially since nobody seems to be checking whether users of “.org” are really not-for-profits or “.net” are really large networks–but that was where it sat.

Fast forward to 2000. Since four of the seven top-level domains remained fairly restricted to their original definitions, “.com,” “.net,” and “.org” have become very popular, especially “.com.” I won’t rehash the various cybersquatting cases and the explosive popularity of the Internet that led to ICANN’s decision to test out seven new domains. It was thought that these new top-level domains would help ease the then-perceived crowding of digital estate. Four new top-level domains (.biz, .info, .name, and .pro) were unsponsored, while three (.aero, .coop, and .museum) were sponsored. When a domain is sponsored, that means that there’s an actual organization in charge of that domain, administering it and handing out names based on some kind of rules, because of an agreement it made with ICANN. For example, only museums can have a domain name with the .museum suffix, and the Museum Domain Management Association (MDMA) hands the names out to applicants who meet certain criteria.

So far, so good–except for one problem: most Web surfers felt perfectly happy with the domains they knew and there wasn’t quite so much interest in either registering or visiting sites with the new suffixes. This wasn’t really the fault of the sponsors; it was the curse of familiarity, as anyone who’s accidentally typed “.com” instead of “.gov” when looking up the White House online will surely insist. Knowing this, many companies with strong brand names raised a stink about the move. They had invested a lot of money in having a Web presence, and they weren’t going to have that jeopardized by cybersquatters grabbing popular names under the new top-level domains and then trying to sell the names at extortionist prices. Indeed, for a while there was some speculation that the only reason ICANN was encouraging the new top-level domains was to raise more money for itself.

Okay, so now it’s 2004. We have seven original top-level domains, seven relatively new top-level domains, and now 10 more proposed top-level domains. Do we really need the new domains? Put it this way: how many of you have bookmarked Web sites ending in the seven new suffixes? I know I haven’t. How many of you have registered, or know someone who has registered, a domain name with one of those seven new suffixes? Ditto. If we really were running out of digital estate, as ICANN claimed, wouldn’t those new top-level domains be seeing lots of noticeable use by now? 

Here is where we see the big difference between digital estate and real estate–between meatspace and cyberspace. The real world has limits, but human creativity doesn’t; so if you can’t get the .com of your dreams, you can come up with something fairly close and register that (so if you can’t have Verizonsucks.com, you can always go for VerizonReallyReallySucks.com or even VerzionSucksBigFatOstrichEggs.com). Each new domain name expands the frontiers of cyberspace without truly taking space away from anyone else, for that very reason. Just try doing that with a bricks-and-mortar establishment! Even skyscrapers have their limits.

Now understand, I’m not saying anything against the groups sponsoring the 10 new top-level domains. Heck, a number of them even have arguably worthy goals. Take “.mobi,” for example; if the domain goes live, any Web site wearing that suffix will have been streamlined for usage with the smaller screens featured on mobile computing devices (like cell phones and PDAs). That ought to simplify surfing. Or take “.xxx,” sponsored by The International Foundation for Online Responsibility. That organization “serves the needs of the global responsible online adult-entertainment community,” and presumably hopes to encourage all those adult Web sites to use .xxx so innocent Web surfers will know what places to avoid (or visit, depending on one’s inclinations). The other proposed top-level domains also serve special interests–and I don’t mean that in a bad sense. After all, spam-haters can be considered a “special interest,” and the sponsors of  “.mail” are hoping to create a spam-free world in our lifetimes. I’d sign on to that!

Still, you have to wonder: if that second set of top-level domains hasn’t seen that much use in four years, why is ICANN accepting applications for 10 more new ones? Do they really think they can reverse the laws of supply and demand? Granted, the current supply of top-level domain names isn’t infinite–but neither is the demand (it only seems that way). And, given human creativity, supply and demand are probably close enough to matching in this case. So…why more domains? Could ICANN be looking to increase its own supply of something else…something green and papery, perhaps?

If you’ve already got your .com domain name, I wouldn’t worry too much about the possible new name influx; the last one didn’t seem to have much effect on things. But by all means, feel free to tell ICANN exactly what you think of its latest move. Remember, that comment period is April 1st to April 30th. Be firm, but polite; they won’t hear your comments if you melt the lines.

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