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Internet Expands with Top Level Domain Names

Applications for new generic Top Level Domain names will be accepted starting Jan. 13 by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). According to the group's CEO, Rod Beckstrom, this is the most significant expansion of the Domain Name System since the birth of the World Wide Web.

ICANN, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the Internet's Domain Name System, is moving ahead with the expansion despite concerns that it poses a threat to organizations that could be forced to spend large amounts to defensively register domain names to protect trademarks and other intellectual property. Some legislators and other U.S. officials have called for a delay in the program to address these concerns.

"There is no reason for a delay," Beckstrom said Jan. 10.

The new gTLD policy has been under development since 2005. Beckstrom said that all of the issues voiced in recent months already have been considered and that the program contains robust safeguards for intellectual property. Intellectual property issues were the No. 1 concern in the more than 2,000 public comments received during the development process, he said. Governmental and law enforcement issues were the second major concern.

Beckstrom defended the program in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said it is the product of a global, multi-stakeholder process and called the continuing controversy healthy.

"No policies are perfect," he said. "But this is a consensus policy in the global public interest. Reaching a consensus is not unanimity," and not every party gets everything it wants.

Top Level Domains are the suffixes on URLs and e-mail addresses that appear to the right of the final dot in the address. Generic TLDs are broad categories that service large communities, such as businesses for .com, public service groups for .org, educational organizations for .edu, and government for .gov. There currently are 22 gTLDs. 

ICANN approved the expansion program in June. Objections to applications can be filed through Dec. 1, 2012, and the first new gTLDs could go online by January 2013 if there are no objections. There will be a non-refundable application fee of $185,000 for each new domain name.

Critics in the business community complain that the new gTLDs would open up a new landscape for cyber squatters and criminals, forcing legitimate owners of brands and trademarks to spend millions of dollars in defensive registration of names within the new domains. Several hearings on the program were held in the House of Representatives in December

The expansion will include the creation of new gTLDs in non-Latin scripts and alphabets, which ICANN hopes will help unify the Internet, maintaining a single set of protocols and infrastructure that will keep it available to all people.

The move to globalization is not popular everywhere, especially in the United States where the Internet was developed.

"The Internet was 100 percent American," Beckstrom said. "It is becoming 100 percent global."

ICANN is chartered in the United States and received its authority to oversee the Internet from the Commerce Department. That operating authority is being shifted to international bodies, but ICANN still struggles in much of the world to overcome the perception that it is an instrument of U.S. control. It faces backlash in the United States when it demonstrates independence.

Beckstrom acknowledged that tension is inevitable between trademarks and the Domain Name System, but said that solving the issues is not simple.

"The trademark system is fragmented and divided," he said. The United States alone has 40 separate categories for trademarks in which the same name can be held by different parties. Domain names and IP addresses are globally unique and cannot be simply mapped to trademarks.

Beckstrom outlined the intellectual property protections included in the expansion policy:

  • The expense and technical requirements for registering a new gTLD will help weed out bad actors.
  • Criminal background checks will be conducted on officers of organizations that submit applications.
  • All new domains being applied for will be listed in May after the application period closes and there will be a 60-day public comment period.
  • There will be a 60-day window for ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee to make objections.
  • There will be a seven-month period for formal objections that will be decided by an independent body. There will be a fee for objections and the loser will pay. "If an applicant loses, their $185,000 fee is gone."
  • A Global Trademark Clearinghouse will be created. Trademark holders register with it and will be notified of possibly infringing domain name registrations. Disputes will be arbitrated.
  • A Uniform Rapid Suspension program will allow quick suspension of a domain name in clear-cut cases.
  • A sunrise registration period will be required of new gTLD registry operators to allow trademark holders to preemptively register.

Finally, there is what Beckstrom called the "nuclear option," a post-delegation dispute resolution process to shut down a new gTLD registry for malicious or improper conduct.

About the Author

William Jackson is the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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