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09 Nov 2009

The Tempest in the TLD Teapot ICANN

At its recent meeting in Seoul ICANN announced with great fanfare that it's getting ever closer to adding lots of new Top Level Domains (TLDs). Despite all the hype, as I have argued before, new TLDs will make little difference.

There are two mostly separate kinds of new TLDs. One is TLDs for countries in non-ASCII character sets, known as IDNs. They're much less controversial, and ICANN will soon issue at least a few politically expedient ones like .中国 with the name in Chinese which would be equivalent to .CN. This is the only real TLD problem, it was waiting for technical specs and implementation (not from ICANN), but that is now largely done.

The controversial issue is domains with random new names, gTLDs. I agree with my old friend Lauren Weinstein that this is a tempest in a very expensive teapot, because all of the purported reasons that people want new TLDs have been proven false, and the one actual reason that a new TLD would be valuable has no public benefit.

Back in the 1990s when this all started, search engines were still obscure experiments, and there was a broad feeling that industry specific TLDs would be used as directories. The failure of .MUSEUM and .AERO shows that DNS directories don't work. There are plenty of directories, but they work by web queries, not DNS queries.

Another theory was that restricted TLDs could certify registrants as being genuine members of whatever the restricted field was. The failure of .PRO and .TRAVEL shows this doesn't work either. Domain names aren't a credible way to certify anyone.

The current leading argument is that the DNS needs "competition", which was and is defined as "people switching from .COM to domains that I sell." There is plenty to dislike about the way that ICANN has managed .COM, but the reality there is that Verisign's technical DNS management has always been fine, and the registration fee, while higher than it should be, is still trivial unless you're a domain speculator.

Equally important, the rise of search engines makes specific domain names increasingly unimportant. Google's Chrome, for example, has only one box where you type either a URL or search terms, and I would be surprised if half of its users know the difference. (It is my impression that typosquatting remains profitable only because people type search terms by mistake into a browser's address box.)

The only "competition" problem to be solved by new gTLDs is that people want to replace Verisign as the toll collector. If they want to waste $185,000 apiece to find out that it's not going to happen, I have no particular opposition to what is in practice a tax on the foolish and greedy, but don't expect anything to change.

One thing that new TLDs is likely to do is to act as browser keywords. If you were to get, say, .INSURANCE, and put a DNS A record at the name INSURANCE., that is, the plain TLD name, then when someone typed insurance into a browser's address box, they'd go to your site. (Try typing dk or bi into the address box to see for yourself how it works.) There are some search keywords that pay $6 or more to Google for each clickthrough, and at that price the $185,000 TLD application fee is only 30,000 clicks, which isn't that much, and after the first 30,000 the rest are free. It's even more valuable if you wouldn't get the clicks otherwise, such as buying .BOOKSTORE if you're not Amazon or B&N. From the users' point of view, this as we say does not lead to an improved experience, since it leads you to the most venal or desperate web site, not the best one that a good search engine would.

So, once again, perhaps with the narrow exception of countries getting their IDN country names (and even there, you'll hear plenty of arguments that it was a bad idea to give the IDNs to the existing country registries), new TLDs still aren't a good idea.

posted at: 00:37 :: permanent link to this entry :: 4 comments
posted at: 00:37 :: permanent link to this entry :: 4 comments

comments...        (Jump to the end to add your own comment)

As you know, I agree with you on everything here. The problem is that while only the foolish will buy these things, large companies are often foolish. Before I left IBM, I was part of a group that was working on advice to the company on whether to register ".ibm". Our basic answer was that they shouldn't, but there are a couple of problems:

1. The decision, regardless of what we advised from a technical PoV, would be largely made by the branding and legal folks. It's entirely possible that they would think they'd need to grab it to maintain the company's brand and to prevent problems with others attempting to get it instead.

2. It's not just ".ibm"; what about ".lotus" and ".tivoli" and ".rational"? What about ".db2" and ".websphere" and...? It could never end. You can imagine that Disney might see a need to register, in addition to .disney, also .mickey and .pluto and .donald, and so on.

The result could be a lot of money in the collective pocket of ICANN, which is clearly why they want this. The problem is that there's nothing to check them on this. They can do it, and then have the business world over a barrel, unless corporate behemoths can be convinced not to play.

(by Barry Leiba 09 Nov 2009 04:24)

There's another problem with respect to spam filtering too: URL extraction becomes a lot harder.

Sure, you can still easily find http://insurance/, but what about - is that a URL or a typo?

(by Matt Sergeant 09 Nov 2009 07:57)

"ICANN will soon issue at least a few politically expedient ones like .中国 with the name in Chinese which would be equivalent to .CN."

I don't know anything about all this, but I do wonder how ICANN is dealing with traditional versus simplified characters. For me personally, 中國 (traditional) means "real" eternal China, and 中国 (simplified) means modern communist China.

Mao simplified the characters partly so that people on the mainland would not be able to read (easily) anything written before 1949 unless the Communist Party chose to publish it. The traditional characters have come back in style a bit on the mainland, but it's too late for them to come back into general use. They're sometimes quite different from simplified characters, e.g. 為 and 为, 聖 and 圣, etc.

It makes a political statement to choose one or the other, actually.

(by parigot 09 Nov 2009 16:10)

Different character sets
The IETF did the hard work of dealing with variations in character sets. For the purposes of domain names, traditional and simplified Chinese are equivalent. I expect the Chinese government won't have any trouble with the political statement made by .中国.

(by John Levine 09 Nov 2009 20:07)

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