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Business Analysis & Features

Dot.chaos: Fears over costly new web domains

A proposition to create 1,000 costly new internet domains is causing concern among businesses and panic among non-profit bodies, says Stephen Foley

If I had $185,000 (£118,000), I might consider becoming a .foley. Carmaker Ford, which does have $185,000, is considering becoming a .ford, but it is unhappy.

What is going on? The body in charge of internet addresses is no longer happy with its limited toy set of .coms and .nets. Starting next month, it is determined to throw open as many as 1,000 new so-called "generic top-level domains" (gTLDs). For a minimum $185,000 fee, companies, neighbourhoods, non-profit groups, individuals – anyone, in fact – can ask to be given a .whatnot of their own. It promises to change the way we think about internet addresses forever.

Except that there is a growing backlash against the whole idea. There are fears that the costs to businesses around the world could run to billions of dollars, in the fight to snag their gTLDs and to deter rival companies or sinister cyber-criminals.

And before all those other potential .foleys out there get ideas, it is worth noting that running a top-level domain is not easy or cheap. In effect, you are setting up a company to run a piece of internet infrastructure, and you will need to prove you have the technical, legal, financial and marketing muscle to do so – even if you don't let anyone else share the gTLD.

The potentially enormous costs are what is exercising big business, which has marshalled a last-ditch campaign to halt the expansion. Non-profit groups, particularly sports or children's charities, say they don't have the money to prevent their names being taken in vain by porn barons and paedophiles.

The US government, too, fears a looming "disaster", to use the word of the Federal Trade Commission boss Jon Leibowitz this week. "We see enormous cost to consumers and businesses and not a lot of benefit," Mr Leibowitz said at the first of what promises to be a string of Congressional hearings into the changes.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, Icann, the California-based charity that governs the rules of internet domains, is excitedly telling everyone to "get ready for the next big.thing" and the opening of applications on 12 January.

But companies as diverse as Ford, retailer Walmart, ad agency Publicis and Cadbury-owner Kraft are among those who say the expansion should be put back and scaled down.

They are represented in the US by the Association of National Advertisers, whose executive vice-president Dan Jaffe said companies and organisations find it hard keeping on top of the current number of gTLDs, which is just 22. "If you cannot stop cybercrime, phishing, typo-squatting and the like and if you do not have the ability to find out who actually owns domain names now, with 22 gTLDS, then you have to ask if we are going to be in a better situation when there are hundreds more," he said.

"Icann has a substantial bureaucracy and labyrinthine processes, and lots of people were consulted, but they are basically listening to themselves. Let's not pretend there is a consensus here when there is not one."

There are already swarms of mischief-makers or outright scammers registering website names in the hope of luring unsuspecting internet users who think they have found a company's legitimate site. Maybe they are phishing scammers, who hope that someone mistyping Barcleys into a URL might put their Barclays Bank details in for the criminals to use.

And the recent arrival of the .xxx domain name for pornographic sites has given a glimpse of what be around the corner, only exponentially more so. Congressmen heard this week, for example, that Indiana University spent $2,200 to secure domain names such as Indianauniversity.xxx, Hoosiers.xxx and others based on the initials of its many campuses. "And we're not even trying to think of every variation of Girls Gone Wild or Girls of Indiana or Hoosier Girls," a university spokesman said.

Icann says it has done plenty of work to address all these problems, putting in place easy processes to make sure that .ford goes to the famous motor company and not to anyone else, and to establish an easy dispute resolution and appeals process, including the quick take-down of any abusive or trademark-infringing sites.

Icann senior vice-president Kurt Pritz told a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Thursday that opponents were putting forward a "revisionist history" by claiming these changes were being rushed through without any proper consultation.

The expansion has been under active debate for six years, he said, "and the involvement continues: for example, representatives of Microsoft, Google, Time Warner and the BBC are active members of a current community group working to refine the implementation of the Trademark Clearinghouse, one of the new rights protection mechanisms."

And people should not forget the benefits of the gTLD explosion, he says. "It is the product of well thought out, thoroughly debated policies that are designed to benefit the billions of internet users through increased competition, choice and innovation."

It provides the chance to finally open the possibility of top-level domains in all the scripts of the world's languages, "to welcome the next billion non-English speaking users to the internet".

It will encourage creativity and allow organisations and companies to bring new services to the internet, he says. A .private could be used to sell secure web services. Firms can revolutionise their communication with the outside world by giving each employee their own domain name within the corporate gTLD.

It could also cut the price and increase the choice of domain names overall, with untold benefits to businesses. As anyone who has wanted to start a website knows, most of the cool.com names have already been snapped up, but how much better might be a world where .com no longer dominates?

It is not just big business and existing, well-known organisations who are sceptical. As the estimates for the number of applications next month rises sharply from the original guess of 300 to now above 1,000, opponents' alarm is mounting.

Icann's ex-chairman Esther Dyson called the plans a "perversion" of its mission to husband an artificially scarce resource. "You are going to see people spending $185,000 on a TLD and spending millions of dollars defending it," she told the Commerce Committee, "when what you want to see is people creating something new – and for that you don't need a new TLD."

Mr Pritz pointed out that Icann was hauled before Congress a decade ago. That time, after a previous round of liberalisation, it was attacked for approving only seven of some 200 suggested TLDs. Of those seven, many people may have heard of .biz and .info, but .aero and .coop remain obscure. Such is the current allure of .com.

Icann is determined to break the stranglehold of .com once and for all, but after six years of hard work, it still has a tough fight on its hands.