The governing of online names is not trivial matter, particularly from the point of view of retailers and companies that own online shops. We have been watching the recent developments in the vain hope that the Internet naming organisations, supposedly full of people who understand the obscure world of Internet Protocol mapping, can bring some logic to the current state of confusion. However, they have thus far failed to come up with an acceptable solution and negotiations have ground to a halt.
At the moment, the US government is, for all practical purposes, the reluctant landlord of the global online high street. It manages the renting of domain names to poor sods like me via a contractor called Network Solutions. Everybody who has a name registered online has a claim to those names and locations only temporarily - on a yearly basis - which is closer to rental or tenancy agreements in the real world. If you miss your renewal, then the next guy in line can grab your name and take over your carefully built online audience.
You also have to deal with effects which arise from the lack of a global trademark system, which often results in your own business name being used by people in other countries with the .com domain, which is more visible than .co.uk. Then there is the problem of so-called Internet names registration companies, which register names of large businesses with the view of making profits from selling the rights to those names.
Clarifying and policing the Internet naming system is necessary but expensive, and requires a central database and a solid legal framework. The Clinton administration is fed up with being the Internet landlord and wants to hand over the responsibility (and the costs of the central database maintenance) to a third party, a not-for-profit organisation, made up of so far undefined representatives of "stakeholders". In plain English, that is a polite name for the aforementioned names registration companies.
Electronic commerce needs only one thing to flourish: a strong property rights law that protects the investment in your online location with the same stringency that a retail property on Regent Street is protected by the British legal system. Having a not-for-profit American organisation responsible for the protection of British online retailers is much too risky. It will only lead to disasters like that brought about by the proposals for new top-level domain names. These were developed, supposedly, to make up for the shortage of available Internet names. The new domains were given American-English endings like .store, which I can see going down very well in Ohio but not so well in Yorkshire.
Did we here in Europe have any input on this important proposition? No, as the consultations were pretty much confined to US-based Internet gurus and a few American retailers, despite the fact that we will all end up paying for it.
In reality, these new top-level domains have been developed solely for the benefit of Internet naming companies, who can't wait to force us to register a name that we thought we already had the rights to. Now we will need to register each name five more times, with fancy endings like .store or .rec.
It's a scheme that would warm the heart of a Russian mafia boss. If I don't register the name, I may find out that a carefully built online location, say dixons.co.uk, turns into a third-rate joint, as somebody else has registered the new name and is using the more visible dixons.store. The need for the new domain names is clearly not technical (according to Network Solutions, there are some two billion six-character names still available), but rather is driven by the naming industry as a new way of selling us something we have already paid for.
The need for a truly global legal framework for allocating new domain names is now stronger than ever. Without it, investment in online shops will die out. So, despite the fact that the US government has the moral upper hand in the battle over domain names (having shouldered around 92 per cent of the total Internet development bill over the past 30 years and now committed to investing a further $500m to fund Next Generation Internet research), leaving the matter in non-European hands and, even worse, in a legal system that doesn't protect UK properties, is not acceptable to anyone who cares about the future of Internet business.
The governments of the wired world should co-operate to form a governing body that will deal with the issues of global trademarks and naming databases at the same time. Delegating the process to private organisations simply will not do, as that will quickly lead to chaos and loss of trust in the Internet as a business-ready network.
Our leaders can't afford to duck this issue any longer. The need to establish a strong legal and technical framework that can take us into the 21st century and meet the challenges of global e-commerce might be a good opportunity to test the waters of electronic governance. Otherwise, we might have to rely on the likes of Microsoft to sort out the mess and give us a system that respects online properties. But having to invite Bill Gates to serve as names sheriff would surely be a last resort, and an admission that our leaders are simply not up to the challenges of the Information Age.
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