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New domain names on the way?

ICANN agrees to study proposals for adding up to 10 new domain names. Could .sucks or .itsnotfair be one of them?
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

The non-profit group overseeing the commercialisation of the Internet's domain name structure ended its international meeting in Cairo on Friday by agreeing to study proposals for introducing up to 10 new domain names that will compete with the now famous .com for valuable cyberspace real estate.

The need for new domains is urgent, especially in the .com space, which has by far the most registered domain names. In April of last year, a Wired News survey found that of 25,500 standard English language dictionary words, only 1,760 had yet to become a .com.

The crowded .com field has led to nasty trademark wars, a whole new set of legal precedents and outrageous sums of money being paid in exchange for simple one-word .coms. Legislation has even been started to combat cybersquatting, a new term introduced into the English lexicon to denote those who register well-known names in the hopes of extorting a kind of digital "greenmail" in return for relinquishing the rights to the name.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the group overseeing the process, approved a number of resolutions on Friday to guide the process, and will be receiving proposals for the best ways to introduce from six to 10 new domains. The proposals weren't made public, but ICANN promised to place them on its Web site after they've been reviewed.

ICANN has asked one of its subcommittees to study the proposals and to submit its recommendations by 20 April. On a parallel track, the World Intellectual Property Organisation will provide ICANN with an official list of "famous trademarks" -- those recognised globally. The owners of those trademarks have suggested they be "grandfathered" into any new domains so as to ease the inevitable legal battles arising from cybersquatters snapping up their brand names when the new domains are released for public use. "The ICANN board set an aggressive schedule for the addition of new domain names," said Jonathan Weinberg, who co-chairs one of the ICANN working groups studying the new domain name issue.

ICANN's schedule "contemplates the adoption of implementation documents [for new domain names] as early as July," said Weinberg, "that means we could possibly see new domains going online as early as New Year's Day."

However, Weinberg said "two key questions" remain -- the exact number of new domain names to be introduced during a so-called "test bed" phase and the process by which they are chosen. Although ICANN easily reached a consensus that new domains should be added, exactly how to move forward will prove the more contentious issue.

Other questions to be resolve include:

  • When will the next new domains be introduced?

  • How will new registries (those companies that actually handle the database of who owns what name) be selected?
  • Who gets to decide what the new domains will actually be?
  • Last week, for example, a Ralph Nader group submitted a letter asking that several "non-commercial" new domains, such as .sucks, .unions and .itsnotfair, be created to allow for consumers and social activists to have a secured place in cyberspace. In addition, a grassroots movement is under way to ask the Department of Commerce, the federal agency that ran the domain name space until it handed off the task to ICANN, to determine the validity of having a kind of "pioneer's preference" established for those registries that have been pushing, some for as long as four years, for the right to introduce new domain names. "I'm glad that the working group was able to show consensus for six to 10 new top-level domains as a test bed," said Image Online Design founder, Christopher Ambler. "We've been waiting to see our .web registry [go active] for over four years now, and look forward to being in ICANN's test bed."

    The addition of up to 10 new domains shouldn't be a technological hurdle, said Ambler, who is in favour of getting the Commerce Department to study the issue of a pioneer's preference rule. "If you limit each test bed registry to a single domain name during this test phase, I suspect that you'll find that there are less than 10 companies ready to be entered right now," Ambler said. "There's no reason we can't do this today and judge the results immediately."

    ICANN's subcommittee studying the issue is asking registries to submit proposals regarding the specific names they want to administer and any "charters" underlying them. These charters outline the conditions for how a domain name registration is granted.

    The Consumer Project for Technology, the Nader group that offered up .sucks, has said it would create a charter for that domain, which would prohibit companies like America Online from owning AOL.sucks, leaving it for non-commercial use by consumers or others that are critical of the business.

    A decision on the issue of adding new domains is expected to be announced in May, when ICANN holds its next meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

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