A Rose by Any Other Name…
What’s in a name? If it’s a domain name, that electronic placeholder contains a lot more than just a string of letters. For many companies, it’s the pointer to everything they want the world to know about them, their products and/or services, and even their whole attitude toward doing business. The name itself, chosen carefully, can become key to corporate identity. Oh sure, Microsoft and IBM existed long before the Internet came along, so they had ready-made identities to transfer online — but what about Amazon, a word that stood only for a rain forest or a woman warrior before computers learned to talk to each other? Or eBay, a word which didn’t even mean anything until someone thought of auctioning Pez dispensers — Pez dispensers! — to other Pez enthusiasts online. Whether profit-making company, struggling newcomer, government agency, not-for-profit organization, or private individual, anyone hoping to use the wild and wonderful Internet to convey information, entertainment, or what have you to other Netizens must have a domain name to mark their electronic real estate.
Normally this registration is easily accomplished by paying the appropriate fees to the appropriate domain name registrar (dozens, all competing for your business!), along with the desired name. Ah, but the fee does not grant you ownership of the name; you’re not actually buying it, but leasing it, usually for a one-year period. If you still want that name, you have to pay again, before your name expires. And if someone else wants your name and manages to register it after you let it expire but before you realize what has happened…
Which brings us to our current story. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a well-known Internet governing body, just approved a request by VeriSign to start up a 12-month trial of a Wait Listing Service for domain names. The decision still needs to be approved by the Department of Commerce before it goes into effect. VeriSign should be willing to wait that long; after all, it’s been working with ICANN for the past two years to hammer out all the details of the service. Okay, granted, the domain name registrar got a little impatient back in late February of this year and filed a lawsuit against ICANN in an attempt to convince ICANN to let VeriSign go ahead with the wait listing service already — but hey, what’s a little lawsuit in the name of progress, right?
The Wait Listing Service would work like this: a customer lets a domain name registrar know that he or she is interested in buying a particular domain name ending in .com or .net. The registrar then makes reservations for that domain name on behalf of the customer. Each domain name accepts only one “waiting” reservation, and those would be on a first-come, first-served basis. And oh yes, the entity already holding the domain name would always have the option to renew it.
Those are the general rules. The specifics run to about 10 pages of .pdf document, available at the ICANN web site. They include such matters as not playing favorites among domain name registrars; informing current domain name holders when someone has waitlisted their names; and time limits on wait list subscriptions, so that they last no longer than one year past the end of the trial period. This is a new and potentially controversial service, after all — and who wants to wait forever to get Hotmail.com?
Excuse me, did I say “potentially” controversial? Raise your hand if you haven’t heard of VeriSign. One can almost describe the still-huge domain name registrar as the Microsoft of the Internet, with one big difference (and not one that reflects nicely on VeriSign): the registrar was granted a monopoly by the US government to register .com, .net, and .org domain names, while Microsoft had to spend some time fighting other operating systems out in the market. The registrar fought tooth and nail to maintain that monopoly, and when they were forced to give it up, they still kept a government contract to run the master database for .com and .net. VeriSign claims that it’s just good business to introduce “new services that benefit Internet users and promote the growth of the Internet.” (That’s from VeriSign’s press release explaining why they filed a lawsuit against ICANN). Ah, but these new services have reportedly inspired some domain name registrars to file lawsuits of their own against both ICANN and VeriSign. The argument is that VeriSign will be able to unfairly take advantage of its government contract in offering this service, giving waitlisting preference to those who go directly to VeriSign.
Hmmm. Leveraging a monopoly in order to add new services that supposedly benefit the customer but in fact may further tie them down to just one provider and strangle the competition. Does this sound familiar to anyone? How about the phrase “stifling the introduction of new services”? That’s not from Microsoft’s anti-trust defense (at least, not this time) — it’s taken from VeriSign’s aforementioned lawsuit against ICANN.
I’m not saying this is going to be a disaster. Keep two things in mind: first, that the Department of Commerce still has to approve this decision; and second, that this is a twelve-month trial project. At the risk of being laughed at by geeks all over the world, I admit that I don’t hold any domain names (I borrow space from a friend who does). But if I did, I’d be seriously tempted to make sure my fees were paid up for the next few years, just to play it safe. Of course, this may be exactly the kind of behavior that VeriSign is hoping to encourage in domain name holders. Which leads to the inevitable question: are we sure we want someone minding the database who is going to try to make money from their position? I’m a firm believer in capitalism, but I don’t have a good answer to that question — just a lot of misgivings about the power of a name.