A big name start-up called Donuts Inc. is finally getting a chance to test its great theory of the internet: URLs matter, and if Donuts just happens to get rich along the way, so be it. That’s the sales pitch, as the company rolls out the first seven of potentially hundreds of new top-level domains (TLDs), insisting that the new approach will change the way we use the internet. The new TLDs (sometimes called generic TLDs or gTLDs), which became available this week through dozens of domain sales companies, are: .bike, .clothing, .guru, .holdings, .plumbing, .singles, and .ventures. That .com of yours seems a little dull now, eh?
So, why do you care? Unless you’d already been planning on starting up a clothing company, you probably don’t in the short term. However, it is true that the new regulatory approach to URLs, first exploited here by Donuts, could be revolutionary — ICANN, the body in charge of administering TLDs, decided a few years ago to allow open season on address endings. If you’ve got $185,000 lying around to buy an application, and another $25,000 per year for administration fees, then you can go register just about any string of three or more letters.
It remains to be seen just how well this will work. The existence of .com, .net, .org etc. technically opens the way for multiple different organizations to use the initials CNN on the internet. Nobody wants to compete with CNN for mindshare, however, so CNN.org has few possible uses besides redirection to CNN.com and, of course, domain squatting. More generic terms are more useful (“flowers.com” vs “flowers.net”), but people can easily mix them up or miss the site they really wanted. For a long time there have been only a couple of dozen TLDs to worry about. Now, ICANN has almost 2,000 in the pipe.
And every one of those new TLDs mean, for many companies, new obligations to register their brand name. This occurs both at the level of TLDs (Amazon recently lost the war for .Amazon to some South American countries) and at the level of the web address (Amazon wants to own every amazon.whatever there could possibly be). The implicit financial burden put on companies has already caused problems in the past, even when introducing just a single new TLD.
ICANN has introduced new TLDs in the past. When .xxx was introduced it was supposed to revolutionize online content. Porn would line up under this new banner, much more easily categorized, found, avoided — and blocked. Collection of objectionable content in such a neat package seemed, to some, an irresistible temptation to government censors. These skittish sites also refused to go through the trouble of rebranding themselves with a kitschy new suffix. Eventually, frustrations over losing .xxx URLs to new-comers led two major studios to bring suit against ICANN. They wanted preference in buying their own names under the new TLD — and last year, they were granted a temporary but extreme discount in purchasing price.
Still, buying your own TLD can have advantages. Not everyone wants to re-sell addresses; if the BBC bought .bbc it could collect content under more intuitive labels. News.bbc could sit atop more specific sites like Syria.bbc, Elections.bbc, or Olympics.bbc. In the future, you may go to mail.google to check your email.
Then there’s the whole “What Dot?” approach, which gives us addresses like “WalkMy.Dog” or “BillyThe.Freelancer.” That approach seems cheesy and unprofessional to me, but many companies think it will make their online location more memorable.
Whatever the reasoning, right now the main applicant for TLDs is Donuts Inc, with more than 300 applications. This is followed by Google and Amazon — that’s the sort of money you can raise with promises of internet dominance. The four industry veterans behind Donuts were able to collect about $100 million to fund their online speculation business. It remains to be seen whether that investment will work out for either them or the public.
One thing is clear, though: With the $185,000 barrier still standing between users and domains, it will be a long time before the full advantages of domain ownership trickle down to smaller companies and individuals. Right now both the pricing and explicit rules prohibit anyone but established corporations from bidding on TLDs. Once novel TLDs become common-place, those barriers will hopefully vanish.
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