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16 Jun 2011

The gTLD Boondoggle ICANN

I've been watching at the excitement build in the domain community, where a lot of people seem to believe that at next month's Singapore meeting, by golly, this time ICANN will really truly open the floodgates and start adding lots of new TLDs. I have my doubts, because there's still significant issues with the GAC and the US Government and ICANN hasn't yet grasped the fact that governments do not defer to NGOs, but let's back up a little and ask whether this is a good idea.

I see four arguments in favor of new TLDs:

  • More competition
  • More Innovation!
  • ICANN promised they would in 1998
  • Lots of money

Elliot Noss made most of these points (except about the money) in a Circle ID post last week. We can dispose of the money issue easily enough: Yes, if there are new TLDs someone may make lots of money selling domains. I have no objection to that, being a Tucows shareholder, but it would be nice if the money making were more or less aligned with the public interest. So let's look at the other three.

Competition

The three legacy domains .COM .ORG and .NET have been a defacto monopoly since before ICANN existed. Spinning off .ORG to PIR and Afilias made it a duopoly, and we can argue whether .INFO and .BIZ are large enough to matter. None of the other new TLDs have made even a teensy dent in the enormous dominance of Verisign's domains.

On the other hand, splitting the registrars from the registrants made a huge difference, and now we have a robustly competitive market in registrations for the large gTLDs, and for a lot of ccTLDs, too. Although I am not a huge fan of Verisign, they are technically very competent, and I don't see any reason to believe that any new TLD will entice people away from .COM. Also, although the price of a .COM domain is probably about twice what it would be in a more competitive market, it's still low enough that it's insignificant to anyone who wants one to use as an identifier, as opposed to hoarding or speculation.

So I find arguments about increased competition unpersuasive.

Innovation!

The next argument is that with more TLDs we will have Innovation! which will be wonderful. This is wrong for two reasons.

Waving my hands a little, there are two general kinds of innovation that might be associated with TLDs, technical and what we might call marketing. The DNS is a multi-level tree, designed so that there is nothing whatsoever technically special about the second level where TLDs sell domains. There's all sorts of DNS experiments going on all the time, but none of them are at the second level, for fairly obvious reasons of cost and bureaucratic difficulty, and since technically they work just as well a level or two down where domains are free.

So maybe it will be marketing Innovation! If we look at the domains added in the past decade, I would say that .COOP and .CAT are somewhat successful experiments, and .MUSEUM is an interesting but failed one. The .CAT domain seems well-accepted in Catalonia, even though with about 46,000 domains it is far smaller than .CH and .HK, which cover countries with about the same population. The .COOP domain has only 9000 entries, representing a tiny fraction of the millions of co-ops in the world, but the co-ops that use it seem to like it. The .MUSEUM domain was an attempt to use a TLD as a directory, giving each registrant a variety of descriptive names, and adding a lot of stub names pointing to placeholder pages with links to registrants, e.g. science.museum has links to all the science museums. There are about 3200 names in .MUSEUM, representing less than 1000 registrants. By any numerical standard it's a failure, but it's been an interesting little experiment.

There's about 250,000 domains each in .NAME and .TEL, two other domains with slightly different registration practices. (The former is supposed to handle names of actual people, the latter to be an online directory.) I know maybe two people with a .NAME domain and nobody who uses .TEL, particularly as the latter has largely abandoned their original technical DNS orientation and now promotes itself as an online web directory, so I'd rate them as experiments of doubtful success, too.

Unfortunately, since it will cost upwards of half a million dollars to get a new TLD (the $185K application fee, and the cost of lobbying ICANN to get it approved, on top of what it actually costs to run) nobody can afford to do interesting little experiments since they'll need to get tens of thousands of registrations just to cover their costs. This rules out anything seriously innovative, since the risk is just too high. All of the proposed TLDs I've seen are for industries (.MUSIC), places (.NYC), or brands (.APPLE or whatever.) What's innovative about any of those?

Also, to point out the obvious, when I think of Innovation! in the domain business, I think of domain speculators, domain tasting, TLD wildcards, free proxy registrations for spammers and crooks, and .XXX. As in the banking industry, the current system works OK, and most changes make it worse. Speaking of the banking industry, one of the few plausible Innovation!s is a .BANK which ensures that its registrants are real banks. Toward that end ICANN had a High Security TLD group which was hijacked by marketers who discarded anything actually related to high security in favor of a laundry list of trivial security features that they could use for upsells, then were unable to find anyone willing to administer it. So, no, I don't believe that new TLDs will provide Innovation! either.

ICANN history

ICANN promised back in 1998 that they would bring the world lots of new domains. So far they haven't, the world has not come to an end, and the Internet has not collapsed. The absence of demand for new TLDs from actual users (as opposed to domain promoters and the occasional astroturf) is deafening. What we do see is a lot of concern that there will be more mistakes like .XXX, and pressure from governments both via the GAC and directly to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Back in 1998, before we all knew that people would find material online using search engines rather than domains, the idea of lots of little .MUSEUM style domains to organize parts of the net sort of seemed plausible. It doesn't any more. Countries that write their names using other than the Roman alphabet wanted TLDs their citizens can read, which the IDN fast track now provides. This doesn't give us the Chinese version of .COM, but I see little reason to think that the users (as opposed to domain salesmen) would prefer it to the Chinese version of .COM.CN which they do have. This leaves us with, "Ma, they promised!" which is about the stupidest reason imaginable to do something.

So what's left to justify thousands of new TLDs? Not much. Unfortunately, ICANN is so hypnotized by the endless millions of dollars they expect to make, and so overrun with people with a financial interest in new TLDs that the public interest (the one that a 501(c)(3) non-profit is supposed to be about) has no chance.


posted at: 19:19 :: permanent link to this entry :: 2 comments
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