April 16, 2013 – For years, the non-profit organization that administers Internet domain names has been deliberating on how to expand the system to meet the voracious demands of cyber users. In January 2012, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) began accepting applications for new top-level domains to augment the current set of 22, including the well-known .com, .net, .org, and .edu. These new TLDs might include generic terms, such as .car, .search, or .shop, and commercial names such as .bmw or .aol. ICANN has received nearly 2,000 registry applications, with many seeking the same domain name. The initial application fee is $186,000, but competition for the same name could end in auction at a considerably higher price. Some new domain names likely will start appearing later this year. The expansion of the international registry system raises a number of potential conflicts and issues that are still being hotly debated. For instance, earlier this month at an ICANN meeting in Beijing, questions were raised about whether the organization should expand its role beyond administration of names to include content oversight. Jacqueline D. Lipton, University of Houston Law Center Baker Botts Professor of Law and a recognized expert on law and digital technology, took time before heading off to the Annual International Intellectual Property Scholars' Roundtable at the University of San Diego, to answer questions about the domain name expansion and what it will mean to you.
Q.) What has been the historical role of ICANN? And how does it regulate Internet names now?
ICANN administers the technical aspects of the Internet domain name system. As the system itself has expanded over the years, ICANN's role has grown, and it has been forced to confront more complex policy and regulatory issues than originally conceived in its by-laws.
Q.) Can you explain the meaning of the terms "generic" and "commercial" TLDs as well as "open" vs. "closed?"
I wish I could. Even ICANN has had trouble coming up with a definition that would differentiate "generic" from "commercial" in the TLD context. It recently called for submissions on that question as well as a host of other related issues. For example, is "Delta" a generic or a commercial term? A number of companies use the term as a commercial trademark but it is also a letter of the Greek alphabet.
The difference between a "closed" and an "open" domain name registry is that a closed registry would only allow sub-domains administered by the registry operator, and an open registry would allow third parties to register sub-domains. For example, if Company X ran the registry for ".lightbulb," it would be a closed registry if Company X itself administered all the sub-domains like "change.lightbulb." It would be open if it allowed others to register those names within its registry.
Q.) Please explain potential problems that may arise in applications for certain generic domain names. Can you give us specific examples of names that might create problems among different nations, cultures, or industries?
There could be, and in fact have been, attempts by multiple parties to register the same generic TLD. Several of the highly sought-after generic names include ".free," ".author," and ".search." It is obvious why a search engine like Google would want to succeed in its application for the ".search" registry, but if it was successful, Google would not be required to allow other search engines to operate within the sub-domains. Amazon.com would like to register ".author," but its plans would not allow others who are interested in books and writers to utilize the sub-domains. This might include writing groups, critique groups, authors, literary agents, and librarians. Some applications have generated opposition to the proposed name itself. For example, a ".islam" registry might be offensive to an anti-Islamic group if administered by a pro-Islamic group or vice versa.
Q.) Is there a mechanism for resolving international disputes?
ICANN has procedures in place to decide who should succeed in an application for a particular new gTLD, and in general no new gTLD can be granted outside ICANN's process. So any disputes are likely to be handled by ICANN within its current processes before applications for new gTLDs are successful. Details of ICANN's procedures for deciding whether a particular application will be successful are available on its website: icann.org
Q.) Will ICANN have safeguards in place to prevent "cybersquatters" from buying up new domain names and holding them hostage for the highest bidder?
This will arise in second level domains within the new gTLD spaces rather than in applications for the new gTLDs themselves. ICANN already has a set of private arbitration rules – the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) – that has dealt effectively with cybersquatting within the existing system. The UDRP, augmented by a new system – the Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS) – will likely be available in new second level domain spaces.
Q.) How will this system expansion affect the average Internet user?
The idea is to open up the domain space so there will be more options for commercial and other entities to use as Internet addresses, which should increase the number of websites available to consumers. It may also lead companies who secure new gTLDs to create innovative business models involving those gTLDs which may benefit consumers. For example, if Amazon were to utilize a ".author" gTLD for dedicated author websites, consumers may benefit by easier access to information about their favorite authors.
Q.) How do you see global communications evolving in the near future?
That's a tough question. In terms of the domain name system, I think we'll see lots of challenges arising involving trademarks, freedom of expression, and innovative business models in the new domain spaces. Anything that increases consumer access to information and that encourages businesses to innovate in new domain spaces could potentially have significant benefits. However, the development of global communications and online business models are much more than the domain name system. The extent to which businesses can reach their audiences and individuals can communicate more quickly and efficiently in the future will depend largely on the continuing development of global communications hardware infrastructures and communications devices such as smartphones, iPads, ultrabooks and the like.
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