ICANN votes to expand top-level domain names

Generic TLDs could appear by the end of 2009; registrars divided over merits

As expected, ICANN, the nonprofit group that manages the Internet Domain Name System, unanimously voted today to begin the process of relaxing the rules for generic top-level domain names (gTLD).

The action means that companies and other organizations eventually could run their own domains. For example, eBay Inc. could run the domain .ebay, and Microsoft Corp. could run the domain .microsoft. Currently, the endings of top-level domain names are limited to a few which include .com, .net and .org, as well as individual country codes such as .ca for Canada or .uk for the United Kingdom.

Prices to register the new domain names, expected to be anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000, would most likely prohibit individuals from applying for new domain names. ICANN said the high fees would allow it to recoup the approximately $20 million it expects to spend on implementation of the new policy.

Groups applying for new top-level domain names must also either prove they are technically able to operate Web sites or contract with a company that does. New gTLDs will probably start appearing by the end of 2009, ICANN said.

Domain name registrars, meanwhile, are divided on the merits of introducing the new TLDs.

"This is a great thing for us and our customers," said Jon Nevett, vice president of policy and government affairs at Network Solutions, and the elected representative from the registrar constituency at ICANN. "I think we'll see some innovation in the marketplace and some ideas that we would never think about. Some people will be applying for new TLDs that are very innovative and creative and will hopefully change the landscape of domain name services."

Elizabeth Driscoll, a spokeswoman for The Go Daddy Group Inc., said the significance of the vote will depend largely on what new TLDs are proposed and approved, and whether they will be in demand or benefit Go Daddy's customers.

"We've grown quickly by listening to our customers and working to give them what they want," Driscoll said in an e-mail. "Just [this week] The Go Daddy Group domain name portfolio hit the 30 million mark. Currently, we offer 44 different TLDs. Regardless of the new TLDs proposed, Go Daddy will stick to our formula for success -- focusing on customer service and support to meet the customers' demands."

Register.com, meanwhile, said it is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The introduction of new TLDs will provide more choices, but it is yet to be seen if these choices will provide domain names our customers will want," said Steven Vine, deputy general counsel at Register.com, in an e-mail. "Additionally, the rules for these TLDs are yet to be finalized, and there are risks that if the right framework is not developed, we may see a repeat of mistakes of the past. For example, as we have learned, in order to maintain a competitive marketplace, we must prevent unfair advantages among registrars."

ICANN also unanimously approved a fast-track process to create a limited number of internationalized domain names that would allow addresses to be written in languages using a non-Latin script, such as Cyrillic, Arabic or Chinese.

"That fast track for country domains really gives me a lot of concern," said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a coalition of trade associations, e-commerce businesses and online consumers. "If the fast track is only for country domains, then ICANN puts today's global domains, .com, .org and .net, on a slow track when it comes to reaching users in different alphabets."

For example, DelBianco said Arabic users will have to choose among 20 different variations of Google because there would be one for each of the 20 countries that would launch Arabic versions of their country domains. But it would be much easier for users to simply enter google.com entirely in Arabic.

"That's the global brand, google.com, so why can't it just be google.com in Arabic?" DelBianco asked. He said the change could also create confusion for users, who simply want to reach their native alphabet version of a domain, such as google.com.

The ICANN board also approved actions to stop the practice of domain name tasting, which allows a registrar to register a domain name and place pay-per-click ads on it for up to five days to determine whether it will make money from those ads. If so, the registrar can then register the domain name for $6 per year. If not, the registrar must return the domain to ICANN.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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