Over the past year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Named and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit organization that is responsible for, among other things, assigning domain names on the Internet, has given initial approval for over 1,500 new “top level domains” (abbreviated as TLDs and sometimes referred to as “domain extensions”).
This means, fairly soon, you could start seeing sites like http://www.site.love, http://www.site.beauty and http://www.site.toys, among many others.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be snapping up your own .baby or .love domain any time soon, many of the extensions may wind up being controlled by private organizations, such as L’oreal’s bid to control .beauty, where there are obvious business interests in the TLD itself, not in selling new domains. As such, many of those applications are for closed registrations, meaning that the operators of the extension will be selective in who they allow to register.
This has already sparked a predictable and understandable fear of corporate control over the Internet. But while the discussion about the balance between corporate control and Internet freedom is important, it’s also important to ask why ICANN is so eager to expand the number of extensions so quickly and what the impact of that expansion could be on the Internet.
Sadly, if previous expansions have taught us anything, it’s probably the latter.
Empty Expansions from the Past
According to a recent industry brief from Verisign (PDF), at the end of 2012, there were over 252 million registered TLDs. Of those, over 100 million were .com, making it the runaway leader. The next most popular TLD, .de (the extension for Germany), had less than 20 million.
Most people equate the words “dot com” with the Internet itself. The .com TLD is hands down the most popular, most valuable and most desirable out of them all. This has led, understandably, to a concern that the extension is becoming too crowded. It is definitely getting more difficult, and in some cases more expensive, to acquire a good .com domain.
So opening up new TLDs seems like a natural solution. If you want to open up a dating site but dating.com is (predictably) taken, then you could use dating.love or dating.smile.
While this sounds good, it’s been tried before. ICANN has preivously opened up other TLDs to take pressure off of .com and, to date, they’ve all been pretty big failures.
For example, take a look at the .biz and .info TLDs. These TLDs have been around for years and, according to the Verisign report listed above, .info is only the 6th most popular and is actually decreasing in popularity (including both the number of domains registered and position in the list). .biz, on the other hand, failed to even break the top ten and is simply included in the “Other” list.
Currently, there are hundreds of TLDs that are available. The majority of TLDs are operated by a specific country, and many are restricted to a specific purpose or to the home country, but there is still no shortage of new TLDs to choose from and most of them have very few registrations, especially compared to .com.
Adding 1,500+ new TLDs isn’t going to change the popularity of .com and it’s dominance. It’s just going to create more problems for people who already hold .com domains and cause more confusion among users of the Web.
The Trademark Problem
Imagine for a moment that you own a business, Widgets.com. Like any smart webmaster, you currently own the .net, .org and other TLDs for your business name.
Now imagine that 1,500 new TLDs come online, many of which are open for anyone to register. You’re faced with a difficult decision, do you, at great expense, register all of those TLDs, to protect your brand? Do you wait and see which become popular and register those (hoping to beat anyone else to them)? Or do you not register any and hope for the best?
If someone registered a domain using your trademark in bad faith, ICANN has a process that lets you dispute that registration and even get the domain for yourself it it was infringing. However, that process, known as the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP), is incredibly expensive, costing at least $1,300 (see section 17 in the PDF).
This is extremely cost prohibitive and small businesses in particular will likely be hit hard. Even if just a handful of the TLDs are widely used for trademark infringement, the costs can pile up quickly and, with 1,500 TLDs being considered, the risk is very real.
It’s also likely that spammers will seize upon many of the new TLDs, much the same as they did with .biz and .info. The problem was so bad that Google once purged all or most .info domains from their index.
All of this amounts to confusion for the average user of the Web. Many are unaware of the impending changes and it’s unclear how they’ll react when the new TLDs come online. Will users start using .beauty or .love as their default the way they do .com now? That seems unlikely. It seems more likely that many will not understand what is going on. Many, for a long time at least, will be confused when asked to type in one of the new TLDs, almost reflexively putting in “.com” afterward.
This, in turn, is a big part of why .com is still so dominant and why it won’t go away any time soon.
To be clear, there is at least a potential problem with .com becoming overcrowded. However, if opening up a handful of TLDs didn’t fix the problem, then opening up 1,500 TLDs (and putting them into the hands of various private companies), won’t fix it either and will likely just make many problems, including spam, trademark infringement and confusion, worse.
The issue is something of a chicken and egg problem. Legitimate webmasters don’t want to use new TLDs until users recognize them and treat them the same as .com. However, users won’t do that until the TLDs are populated with legitimate sites that they want to see.
In short, companies want to use TLDs users recognize but users won’t recognize a TLD until companies use it widely. It’s a nasty problem without an obvious solution.
However, simply throwing more TLDs at it is not the answer. It’s failed in the past and, most likely, will fail again. Considering that the Internet already doesn’t fully use all of the TLDs it has, the expansion seems like a huge risk with a lot of historical precedent against its success.