The Internet governance world gathers in Toronto this week as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the California-based non-profit corporation charged with the principal responsibility for maintaining the Internet’s domain name system, holds one of its meetings in Canada for only the third time. The Toronto ICANN meeting comes at a particularly tumultuous time for the organization with mounting criticism over its process for creating new domain name extensions that could reshape the Internet.
After years of debate and discussion, ICANN last year unveiled a policy that opened the door to hundreds of new domain name extensions. While most Internet users are accustomed to the current generic (dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org) and country-code (dot-ca in Canada) extensions, ICANN’s plans will radically change the domain name landscape by creating hundreds of new extensions linked to brand names, geographic regions, and even generic words.
The domain name extension allocation process began with an open process that attracted nearly 2,000 applications for new domain name extensions. Several Canadian organizations jumped at the chance for new extensions, including Rogers Communications (which applied for dot-rogers, dot-fido, and dot-chatr) and the Canadian Real Estate Association (dot-mls).
Once the applications were published, the next stage of the process invited comments on the proposals. The 105-day comment period generated more than 10,000 responses, with many applications facing considerable criticism.
Targets included even the most innocuous proposals. For example, Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of well-known baby products including baby powder and bath oil, applied for a dot-baby domain name extension. The Saudi Arabian government responded by warning that “many individuals and societies may find this string offensive on religious and/or cultural grounds.” It added that there is a risk that the domain extension could be used for pornography, much like dot-xxx domains.
Many other proposals attracted demands for heightened regulation of domain name registrations. The movie and music industry responded to the proposed creation of a dot-music domain name extension by calling for “enhanced security measures”. These include the ability to reject potential registrants and requirements for detailed personal information on registration that would be made widely accessible. The groups justify the need for these measures on the basis that new extensions focused on the content industries have “the exceptional potential to cause harm to consumers.”
These complaints may border on the bizarre, but the biggest outcry has arisen over proposals from Internet giants Amazon and Google to register hundreds of generic words, such as dot-book and dot-blog. While few have a problem with the creation of these new generic extensions, Amazon and Google surprised the Internet community by proposing to keep the domains private with no public registrations.
Private domain name extensions were expected – many popular brand names submitted applications to extend their trademarks to new domain name extensions without plans to offer the public access – but the use of generic terms for private purposes has rubbed many people the wrong way as there is a sense of a virtual land grab.
With criticism of these proposals mounting, ICANN finds itself sandwiched between unhappy governments, lobby groups, registrars, consumer associations, and Internet users. If the organization caves to the pressure, its legitimacy as a community-based consensus driven body will be damaged. On the other hand, doing nothing runs the risk of lawsuits and criticism that a decade-long policy process has failed. As ICANN meets in Toronto, addressing the new domain name extension issue will have significant implications not only for the Internet, but for the organization itself.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.