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The Envelope, Please: New Top Level Domains on the Horizon

by Ellen Rony
To assist the ICANN staff in handling applications, we would appreciate
notification by e-mail to when sending an application that exceeds
30 kilograms (66 pounds).

-- ICANN's New TLD Application Instructions (15-Aug-00)

As a youngster growing up in California, the land of endless sun and surf was a mecca for new residents. We were told that 1,600 people were arriving daily, and that seemed like a very large number. It preceded by decades the influx of immigrants and the current population boom.

A cartoon captured the essence of this growth. It showed workers constructing a mammoth new freeway as cars queued up for miles in readiness to use this new mode of travel. This seems an apt analogy for the introduction of new top level domains. People have been lobbying for the expansion of the Internet name space for nearly five years, and many have already queued up with domain name pre-registrations, hoping that their top level domain (TLD) of choice receives the authoritative nod.

The organization that will determine which new top level domains are added to the root zone is ICANN, the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is a public benefit not-for-profit corporation chartered by the U.S. government to provide technical coordination of the Internet and to enhance competition for domain name registration services. Everything ICANN has touched since its inception in October 1998 has been steeped in controversy. As it begins a month-long process of weighing the merits of the TLD applications, its selections are likely to engender debate no matter which new TLDs are anointed.

October 2 was the deadline for submitting proposals. How many TLDs? Which ones? How soon will they be functional? It's anyone's guess, but the technical coordinating body, which holds such key decisions very close to its virtual chest, has provided us with some discernible clues.

How many new TLDs?

Those who hope that ICANN will let a thousand new TLDs bloom will be clearly disappointed. ICANN is taking a go-slow approach and has advised the Internet community that less than a dozen will be approved. According to ICANN, the initial selection will occur in a small scale. well-controlled, measured and responsible manner as a "proof of concept" for possible future introductions. Never mind that the legacy root currently includes 244 country-code TLDs (ccTLDs), three unrestricted TLDs (gTLDs), four restricted TLDs (.EDU, .MIL, .GOV, and .INT) and one four-letter legacy TLD (.ARPA) that can provide useful models for evaluation. ICANN argues that fewer than ten of the existing 244 ccTLDs have as many as 100,000 registrations and thus offer limited experience for the initial introduction.

Which ones?

Prior to its July 16, meeting in Yokohama, Japan, the ICANN Board of Directors invited expressions of interest from from parties seeking to operate and/or sponsor any new TLDs. Proposals for 53 new TLDs were submitted, and several received multiple expressions of interest. The formal application process, conducted from September 5 through October 2, was quite a different matter. ICANN required that a non-refundable $50,000 fee accompany every TLD proposal. That is not chump change, and some meritorious proposals will not see the light of consideration in this initial round because the sponsors cannot vault this substantial financial barrier.

ICANN's TLD process overview describes two general types of TLDs: sponsored and unsponsored. The difference between these is whether ICANN maintains some defined level of ongoing policy-formulation responsibility regarding the manner in which the TLD is operated. That notwithstanding, ICANN asserts authority over the delegation process and thus, defacto, over the entire name space.

In a sponsored TLD, the sponsoring organization is primarily responsible for selecting the registry operator; otherwise ICANN selects the registry operator. The sponsoring organization will have authority to make decisions regarding policies applicable to the TLD, provided they are within the scope of the TLD's charter and comport with broader requirements concerning interoperability, availability of registration data, etc. to serve the interests of the Internet community. For unsponsored TLDs, ICANN will formulate the policies. Initially, these policies will be generally defined as the existing gTLD policies described in the ICANN/NSI/DOC agreements of November 4, 1999 and amendments.

ICANN seeks diversity in TLD business models to provide effective competition among registries. The TLD itself may be unrestricted or else chartered with a limited scope. An unrestricted TLD has no differentiating requirements. It is open to all regardless of residency or intended use. Restricted TLDs have requirements regarding who may apply for registration and/or what uses may be made of those registrations. Such charters exist to promote the distinctiveness of those TLDs over time.

.COM, .NET and .ORG TLDs began life with RFC-920 in October 1984 as general categories with definitions for their use. Network Solutions' registration policy in 1995 required applicants to describe the purpose of the domain name registration in support of the chosen TLD. Sometime in 1996, NSI suspended screening of registrations to speed processing of the increasing volume of applications. The distinctions among COM, .NET and .ORG now have completely blurred, and all three are open to anyone who can afford to pay for a registration. Registrars even encourage prospective applicants to register the same domain name in all three gTLDs.

ICANN favors TLD proposals that make it easier for Internet users to find the providers of resources they seek online. This view supports charter, or special-purpose, TLDs over those which are open and unrestricted. Such differentiation may be based on geography, industry, type of use, or affinity of user.

How soon will they be functional?

After five years of contentious debate, new top level domains are on the horizon. The pressure for expanding the top level domain name space is palpable. Yet, trademark owners have enthroned their name claims and framed intellectual property rights and prevention of cybersquatting as the premiere issues in the launch of new TLDs. ICANN has acceded to that perspective. Every TLD proposal must consider appropriate protections of rights of others, including intellectual property rights, in connection with the operation of the TLD, especially during the start-up phase.

ICANN has published a promising schedule for the initial launch of new TLDs. The deadline for receipt of completed applications, supporting materials and non-refundable fees was October 2. Three days later, portions of these applications "deemed appropriate for public comment" will be posted on ICANN's web site. The public has two weeks to comment. ICANN's Annual Meeting will be held from November 13-16, and shortly thereafter, the Board will announce selections for negotiations toward entry of agreements with registry sponsors and operators. The last day of Year 2000 is the target date for completion of these negotiations. Presumably, the flags drop and the race for domain names begins on January 1, 2001, although it is unlikely that most applicants will be ready to launch their new operations within the first quarter of the year.

Start-up presents some conspicuous issues. The virtual land rush in the first few days of registration will create huge query and transaction loads. In addition to identifying how many TLDs and which ones will secure approval in the initial round, ICANN's board must establish a mechanism for orderly registration of domain names. Acting under the guise of its Names Council, ICANN issued a warning on September 29 that the practice of pre-registration should not be encouraged, but one must question how such a prohibition can be enforced. Some accredited CORE registrars have been accepting pre-registrations in seven proposed TLDs since 1998.

ICANN desperately needs confidence from the Internet community, but that has been withheld for numerous reasons, most well deserved. ICANN's bylaws have gone through various permutations, and its own self-proscribed processes are sometimes ignored. The public wants a true general membership, greater accountability, openness and transparency, but even in this, ICANN's most consequential decision to date, the selection of new TLDs will occur behind closed doors. It is unclear who among ICANN's small circle of board members, staff members, legal consultants and ad hoc advisers will be choosing the winners of this high stakes name game.

Top Ten Quick Picks

Dare one attempt such prognostication? On the cusp of ICANN's publishing the proposal details, this has been a very secretive process. Monitoring a half dozen domain related lists, the websites of major corporations and consumer interest organizations, and the online media has supplied scant information about who is reaching for the TLD golden ring and what new names are being proposed.

With $50,000 on the line, it's a likely bet that major players, intergovernmental agencies and consumer advocate organizations have submitted applications that satisfy the threshold requirements of exhibiting a well-conceived plan, backed by sufficient resources, to meet presently unmet needs of the Internet community. While the Internet community certainly wants to know who will sponsor or operate a new registry, the main interest is in the TLD character strings themselves. So, the following predictions assume technical compliance, provisions for the orderly assignment of domain names, measures to correct technical problems, prevent registry failures provide for the continued and unimpaired operation of the registry, and fulfillment of other technical, legal and policy requirements.

As "proof of concept", ICANN will select new TLDs that represent each of the categories it has specified: sponsored, unsponsored; unrestricted and restricted. That suggests a minimum of four new TLDs will be introduced. We can also expect ICANN to favor proposals that present no trademark issues, thus expanding the TLD name space without creating new baggage and dissension. IMHO, all the new TLDs will contain four letters, to differentiate them from the ccTLDs and the legacy gTLDs.The nomenclature must be short, identifiable, easy to type, and descriptive of the nature of the TLD.

Given those caveats, I expect the following categories of TLDs to make the final pick. As one who is foreign language-challenged, please forgive the English-centricity of these choices. I expect the new TLDs will include at least one from a non-English language.

  • .EU (sponsored, restricted) for members of the European Union, sponsored by the European Commission. This delegation is already a given, as noted in the minutes of the Special Meeting of the ICANN Board on September 25, 2000.
  • .ESYS or .ZONE (sponsored, restricted) solely for technical use and experimentation by Internet developers and infrastructure providers.
  • .ECOM, .EBIZ or SHOP (unsponsored, unrestricted) administered by the Internet Council of Registrars (CORE ) or the newly developed registrar consortium to bring competition to the popular and overburdened .COM TLD. .COM enjoys 80% of the market share of total generic top level domain registrations,
  • ,ENOM, .NAME or .PERS (unsponsored, restricted) for personal names and personal use, perhaps administered by the coalition of registrars.
  • .TALK or .CAFE (sponsored, unrestricted) for public expression that may involve consumer complaints and criticism of corporate behavior. I believe this will find favor over the more limited approach posed by a TLD such as .UNION.
  • .MAIL, .EZIP or .PORT (sponsored, restricted) a coordinate-based designation similar to that suggested by the .GEO proposal. The U.S. Post Office wants to provide secure email to all U.S. residents, allowing them to track and reroute mail over the Internet. This futuristic system would require nomenclature that bridges both physical and virtual world addressing.
  • .FIND or .QUEL (unsponsored, restricted), translated from French as who? what? why? as a category for all manner of search engines, comparison mechanisms, and keyword lookups.
  • At least one TLD for industry-specific use (sponsored or unsponsored, restricted), such as .LABS for medical, run by some international association of physicians, or .BANC, as suggested by NSI.
  • .TELE (sponsored, restricted) a phone number to DNS lookup system, administered by a numbering authority. A numbers-based TLD will be immune from the trademark issues. Furthermore, developments in wireless telephony are moving us toward the marriage of cell phones, PDAs and Internet access, so this is an area that begs for expression.\
  • And finally, perhaps, .TLDS or .NICS, (sponsored, restricted) a network information center and WHOIS of all NICs and registrars, sponsored by NSI after it relinquishes its role as administrator of .COM, .NET and .ORG

    Like the cars in the Los Angeles cartoon of decades past, people are already lining up at prospective registries, hoping that the TLDs in which they have registered domain names will be admitted to the authoritative root. No matter how many, which ones, or how soon they are operational, build a virtual highway and the people will come.

    In my humble opinion.

    By Ellen Rony
    © October 2, 2000
    All rights reserved. 


Other articles, editorials and domain-related comments by this author:

At Large Membership: ICANN's Ultimate Tarbaby

The ICANN-VeriSign Agreement: A Sweetheart Deal

The Divine Right of Names: New TLDs Prep for Start-up

Procter & Gamble Bids Adieu to SINUS, THIRST and FLU

Words First!

Sunrise+20: The Numbers Tell the Story

Famous Marks

Clicks or Mortar: Are Domain Names Property?

Res Ipsa Loquitur

RDND: Reverse Domain Name Denigration

IIR: Internet Impact Report

The Devil is in the Details

An Alternative to ICANN?

Comments on the WIPO Interim Report RFC-3
















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