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02 Jul 2009
Yesterday I said that the original motivations for adding new TLDs were to break Verisign's monopoly on .COM, and to use domain names as directories. Competitive registrars broke the monopoly more effectively than any new domains, and the new domains that tried to be directories have failed. So what could a new TLD do?
Get rich quick: the new domains with the most registrations are .BIZ and .INFO, clones of .COM and .ORG for people who missed out the first time. Despite vigorous marketing and, for .INFO, price cutting, neither is more than a pale shadow of the original, and both are plagued with sleazy registrants. Nonetheless, we can expect a few more clones like .WEB, who will make their money from defensive trademark registrations, domain squatters, speculators, and a few suckers who think that SAUERKRAUT.WEB can be the gateway to a mail-order fortune.
Idealists: Another unpersuasive theory says that a TLD enables communities. The best example to date is .CAT for Catalonia, which is modestly successful but doesn't tell us much since Barcelona is a rich sophisticated city that would be awash in Internet content with or without a domain. On the other hand .MUSEUM is a noble failure, with only about 200 registrants, a lot of dead links, and negligible visibility. Two pleasant young men have been trying to get .BERLIN through ICANN for years, and there are other candidates like .ECO, but it's hard to see why anyone would switch from their existing domain in .DE or .ORG or whatever since they haven't for any of the community domains we have now. I've heard claims that tiny language groups in danger of dying out need their own TLD, but it seems to me that if they could raise the $185K that a TLD application costs, they'd be a lot better off hiring linguists and programmers to compile dictionaries and adapt text and web tools to work in the language.
Certification: sponsored TLDs are supposed to ensure that all of their registrants meet specific requirements, so you know that a domain in, say, .COOP is an actual co-operative. The flaw in this theory so far is that none of the sponsored TLDs so far have been in areas where there's a problem with fakes, nor do they have any process to verify that registrants remain eligible. The little poultry packer that registered CHICKEN.COOP sold out to a larger company, but nobody noticed they weren't a co-op any more until I wrote to .COOP management and told them. They thanked me and encouraged me to report any more violations I saw, so I guess I volunteered to be the compliance department. The number of registrations in .COOP is on the order of 1% of the co-ops in the world, so it appears that the other 99% of co-ops are getting along fine without a special domain.
The .PRO domain is supposed to be just for licensed doctors, lawyers, accountants and maybe other licensed professionals (the web site is a bit vague), who have to present their licenses to register, but a combination of mismanagement and financial problems have allowed in large numbers of speculators and other registrants who clearly don't meet the criteria, so it doesn't tell us anything useful. I could imagine that a .BANK domain that carefully vetted its registrants to be sure they were real banks with government banking licenses might help tell real from fake bank web sites and mail, but that certification niche seems to be taken already by green bar SSL certificates.
Branding: The new rules allow single owner domains, so we can expect Apple to get .MAC and probably other companies will register their name like .IBM or brand names. Marketers are doubtless salivating, but for regular users, it's hard to see why you'd want to be BOB.MAC and rent your identity to your computer vendor.
Non-English languages: This is the only one that has any urgency at all. China really wants .中国 in addition to .CN, and a lot of other countries with non-Roman writing would also like localized domains. ICANN has a separate process for non-ASCII TLDs, so I'll ignore them for now.
So running down this list, where's the compelling argument? Does anyone (ignoring those with vested interests) really think that more TLDs will break the .COM monopoly? That more "community" TLDs will be any more of a success than the failures to date? That anyone will use a TLD rather than a search engine as a directory?
The only unambigous beneficiary of new TLDs is ICANN, whose cash flow will increase by $185,000 per application, and all of the consultants they've hired to do the evaluations because ICANN's many highly paid staff evidently can't do it themselves. Since a lot of the new TLDs will be run by organizations with little or no experience as a registry, we can expect them to learn slowly and painfully about all the sleazy tricks that crooked registrants pull.
In sum, neither of the two classic arguments for new domains, competition and directories, have worked in the past decade, and there's no reason to think they will in the future. Other than support for non-English languages, all of the other rationales strike me as wishful thinking, not business models. So I look forward to .中国 and its ilk, but other than that, they're all going to fail, very expensively.
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