ICANN moves toward completely opening top-level domains

One of the biggest news items this week, according to The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), could result in the biggest expansion to the Internet in forty years.

ICANN unanimously voted in favor of introducing new top-level domains, which will include internationalized forms, including in non-Roman alphabets. This could open the door for top level domains to be longer, more descriptive or ultra-specific: such as .free, .paris, or .spaƟ.

The forty-year-old development the group referred to in its comparison of historical significance, is no doubt the FCC's move to allow non-Western Electric (AT&T) equipment to connect to the telephone network, opening up the possibility for electronically-coupled modems.

This week's vote approved a policy proposal to expand the amount of top-level domains from the current 21 to a practically limitless amount.

Following the plan's finalization later this year, the application process for new names is expected by the second quarter of 2009. Since trademarks will not be automatically reserved, experts have already predicted that these highly-personalized domains could cost upwards of $100,000 to prevent squatters from hijacking names such as .google, .amd, or .bmw. An objection-based protection system will be in place to discourage trademark heists.

A similar objection-based system will be in place for "offensive names." However, an international arbitration body, not ICANN, will handle the process.

This is one area where an influx of names may cause a certain degree of trouble. For example, the .NU domain is popular in Sweden where the domain name translates to "now." To non-Swedish speakers, that domain is less meaningful. A linguistic phenomenon sometimes referred to as "word warp" could take place, where one word, spelled exactly the same in two languages, means something completely different in each. The domain ".pet" would seem ideal for animal lovers in the English speaking world, meanwhile, to certain French-speaking areas, this is the equivalent of ".fart."

This is actually just a humorous example of the thousands of potential pitfalls that come along with this proposed deregulation. Entitlement to city names has not yet been established, so fighting over .paris and .hollywood is practically guaranteed. There are over 17 cities in the United States named Decatur, who gets ".decatur"?

Furthermore, by allowing any name to be registered as a TLD, companies with a long list of products would face a veritable avalanche of new names they would need to purchase, or engage in litigation to protect.

A previously held belief that too many top level domains could cause technical problems, was dismissed by the group. "There is not currently any evidence to support establishing a limit to how many TLDs can be inserted in the root, based on technical stability concerns," ICANN determined at its meetings this week.

So it is technically manageable, but is it legally and economically feasible? With an entire economy based on the value of ".com," and many companies' secondary TLDs (google.info, google.net) just mirroring their .com site, opening top level domains could be tantamount to opening Pandora's box.

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