ICANN prepares to auction off the English language

ICANN is meeting in San Francisco this week. And they’re getting closer to finally implementing a plan they have had in the works for some time to issue new TLDs, particularly generic top level domains.

Their heart is in the right place, because Verisign’s monopoly on “.com” — which has become the de facto only space where everybody wants a domain name, if they can get it — was a terrible mistake that needs to be corrected. We need to do something about this, but the plan of letting other companies get generic TLDs which are ordinary English words, with domains like “.sport” and “.music” (as well as .ibm and .microsoft) is a great mistake.

I have an odd ambivalence. This plan will either fail (as the others like .travel, .biz, .museum etc appear to have) or it will succeed at perpetuating the mistake. Strangely it is the trademark lawyers who know the answer to this. In trademark law, it was wisely ruled centuries ago that nobody gets ownership of generic terms. But some parties will offer the $185,000 fee to own .music precisely because they hope it will give them a monopoly on naming of music related internet sites. Like all monopolies these TLDs will charge excessive fees and give poor customer service. They’ll also get to subdivide the monopoly selling domains like rock.music or classical.music. And while .music will compete with .com, the new TLDs will largely not compete with one another — ie. nobody will be debating whether to go with .music or .sport, and so we won’t get the competition we truly need.

I’ve argued this before, but I have just prepared two new essays in my DNS sub-site:

Since I don’t like either of the two main consequences, what do I propose? Well for years I have suggested we should instead have truly competitive TLDs which can compete on everything — price, policies, service, priority and more. They should each start on an equal footing so they are equal competitors. That means not giving any one a generic name that has an intrinsic value like “.music.” People will seek out the .music domain not because the .music company is good or has good prices, they will seek it out because they want to name a site related to music, and that’s not a market.

Instead I propose that new TLDs be what trademark people call “coined terms” which are made up words with no intrinsic meaning. Examples from the past include names like Kodak, Xerox and Google. Today, almost every new .com site has to make up a coined term because all the generics are taken. If the TLDs are coined terms, then the owners must build the value in them by the sweat of their brow (or with mone) rather than getting a feudal lordship over an existing space. That means they can all compete for the business of people registering domains, and competition is what’s good for the market and the users.

Sadly the .com monopoly remains (along with the few other generic TLDs.) The answer there is to announce a phase out. All .com sites with generic meanings should get new names in the new system, but after a year or two they’ll get redirect as long as they want to pay. (Their new registrar will manage this and set the price.) All http requests, in particular would get an HTTP Redirect Permanent (301) so the browser shows the new name. E-mail MX would be provided but all sent email would use the new name. All old links and addresses would still work forever, but users would switch advertising and everything else to the new names at a reasonable pace. Yes, people who invested lots of money in trying to own words like “drugstore.com” lose some of that value, but it’s value they should never have been sold in the first place. (Companies with unique strings like microsoft.com could avoid the switch, but not non-unique ones like apple.com or ibm.com)

Check out the essays for the real details. Of course, at this point the forces of the “stakeholders” at ICANN are so powerful that I am tilting at windmills. They will go ahead even though it’s the wrong answer. And once done, it will be as hard to undo as .com is. But the right answer should still be proclaimed.

Is it even worth it anymore?

Who, these days, searches for things by typing random stuff into the address bar? It all starts at Google, or Bing, or Yahoo, or whatever else is still out there. Or it's a link from a blog, or it's printed in company literature, saw it on TV, on a sign, something.

Why would owning a generic domain name be useful anymore? Indeed, why aren't domain names just a single word now? It's not as though the "www." and ".com" descriptors are meaningful anymore.

Yes, it's worth it

While fewer people will just type “drugstore.com” into the address bar, companies like a name like that because it is memorable and makes them seem like the #1 player. They must be big or old, how else could they have that domain?

While people who bought generic words did get a fair amount of “I will type in the word and see what I get” traffic in the old days, I don’t know what they get today.

It has to be something, because the price for a real generic word domain in .com is still quite high, tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t know if any are selling for millions as they used to but they might be.

common last names

I predict: registrars (or other entrepreneurs) will buy TLDs for common last names ('lee', 'brown', 'williams') to sell you . domains.

Separately, I would like to point out the usability problem in making domain names even harder for users to recognize. Currently "dot com" is a helpful token that means "the last thing I said is a web site", like "mister" means "the next thing I say is a name of a male". If the new TLDs actually take off, it seems like that token will become only "dot", which is even smaller and less audible. "Find us on places dot foursquare" is a lot harder to understand than "Find us on places dot foursquare dotcom".

Community domain rules

In the new ICANN rules, they have two types of TLDs, regular and “community.” A community domain is one aimed at a particular established community. To get that you have to show you are in charge of that community. This is where most of the vanity TLDs for corporations will go, because IBM can demonstrate it is in charge of “the IBM community” which they can define any way they like. They also expect organizations to register here, one could imagine something like “.ieee” for example.

I don’t know what they will do with communities where nobody is in charge, like family names. They may class that as generics, where it’s also the case that nobody is in charge. If two people both want “.smith” there will be a mediation and eventually an auction, though they say auctions are the last resort.

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