September 9, 2013

What's in a Domain Name?

Jerry Brito

Former Senior Research Fellow
Summary

Thousands of new Internet domain names will soon be available, but who should control how they are used? Jerry Brito at Reason.

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Today the Internet has 22 generic top-level domain names—from .com and .gov to .org and .info—and they’re all essentially the same. As anyone who’s tried to register a new domain name lately can tell you, the good ones are all taken. Magazine.com, libertarian.com, plumbing.com (or .net or .biz for that matter) are all in use. 

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit body that coordinates the Internet’s addressing system, plans to greatly expand the number of generic top-level domain names (generic as opposed to country domains like .uk or .ru). Soon websites will be able to have names that end with almost any word: .painting, .proctology, .whatever.  ICANN has screened and provisionally approved almost 2,000 applications for new top-level domains so far. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of indignation over the domain name expansion. A parade of objections—both notionally and officially—threaten the Internet with not just bad policy, but with the possibility of government control.

First among the outraged are the perpetually concerned “consumer advocates.” When Jon Leibowitz was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission two years ago, he sent ICANN a letter arguing that a greater number of domains would result in more fake websites scamming consumers. But if every innovation had to be proven to be risk-free before seeing the light of day, we would be living in dark times indeed.

Another set of criticism for ICANN’s expansion is the fear that new top-level domains would not be made available publicly, but instead be put to private use by whoever wins at auction. For example, Amazon.com has applied for the .book domain. If it acquires the name, Amazon could operate a registry and allow anyone to get their own .book address. Alternatively, it could also just keep all .book addresses for itself, perhaps assigning each book and author in the world a web address corresponding to the company’s catalog. 

"It's a very legitimate competition concern," Leibowitz, now a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell,told The New York Times last month. "The public at large, consumers and businesses, would be better served by no expansion or less expansion." It'’s hard to see how consumers would benefit from fewer, rather than more, new ways to access information. 

With a technically infinite number of new domain names possible, competitive harm is not a serious issue. Today, Barnes & Noble owns book.com and its competitors are denied access to subdomains of book.com, like NickGillespie.book.com or UnitedStatesofParanoia.book.com. The same goes for food.com (owned by Scripps) or news.com (owned by CBS). Yet no one seriously thinks book or food or news competition is diminished. Amazon has established itself as the premier book retailer even though it doesn’t own book.com, and owning .book isn’t going to make it immune from competition.

Then there are those who have problems with specific potential new top-level domains. Last month, the Republican National Committee filed an objection with ICANN opposing an application for a new .republican domain by United TLD Holdco, a company looking to run 26 different new domains, including .democrat and .ninja. 

"It’s not appropriate for them to run something that is called .Republican," G.O.P. State Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski told National Journal. "Part of the new Internet is about making sure the people who have the interest in the brand, in this case political parties, not just crass commercial interest."

The word republican, however, has a broader meaning than the party and the party doesn't necessarily represent all persons identifying as Republican. Shouldn't the party compete with everyone else for the .republican top-level domain?

"We certainly are free-enterprise and market-capitalist, but we feel like we have the right to run our own political party," Jankowski said. "We run it in a nonprofit fashion, so I don’t think the market capitalism should be involved with the actual operation of the party."

When governments object, however, it's a much more serious concern. Brazil and Argentina have challenged .Amazon and .Patagonia, respectively, which are being sought by the bookseller and the outdoor clothing company, also respectively. Saudi Arabia has objected to applications for .gay, .wine, and .bible, among others. 

To date the Internet has been governed in a decentralized fashion through a bottom-up, consensus-driven process run by autonomous, non-governmental entities. As one would imagine, this drives world governments crazy, and many have pushed for the UN to take over the various standards-setting bodies of the Internet. ICANN, because it controls the Internet’s singular namespace, is the least decentralized of these bodies, and is the most vulnerable to government pressure.

Dismissing the likes of Leibowitz and the Republican Party should not be difficult for ICANN, but official objections coming from ICANN’s own 111-state-member Government Advisory Council (GAC) will be harder to deal with. If it denies new domain applications at the behest of governments, the Internet gets a little less independent. If it doesn’t, the Russias and Chinas of the world will cry foul, argue that the ICANN process doesn’t work, and further push for UN control. As Milton Mueller has put it, what's at stake is "whether the use of words or names on the Internet is subject to arbitrary objections from politicians globalizing their local prejudices."

The best hope is that right-thinking governments—most likely those of the United States or the E.U. countries—stand up for ICANN's independence. Unfortunately, after holding it back for some time, the U.S. recently folded its arms and allowed a GAC consensus objection on .amazon to get through. That now forces ICANN’s board to vote on whether to veto the states. And it confirms, once again, that no state can be trusted as the Internet's champion.