Icann do without it, thanks

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The Independent Online

Things move fast in the ever-changing world of internet domain names. We've only just managed to grasp the fact that registering harrods.com is a bad idea if you aren't named Fayed. It took the better part of six years to clarify that legal trademark owners take precedence over sneaky domain-name cybersquatters.

Things move fast in the ever-changing world of internet domain names. We've only just managed to grasp the fact that registering harrods.com is a bad idea if you aren't named Fayed. It took the better part of six years to clarify that legal trademark owners take precedence over sneaky domain-name cybersquatters.

However, if you run an internet business or rely on your URL in a significant way, get ready for the next wave of chaos, courtesy of Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the illustrious not-for-profit domain registration body Icann, lead by that ultimate libertarian Esther Dyson, has just passed a resolution that new domain names will become available for registration from the beginning of next year. The proposal is in its initial draft but already smacks of major trouble and increased risks for online businesses.

The new domain names proposed are not fully defined yet but are likely to involve .travel, .shop and possibly four more generic categories. There is only a few months left for consultations and setting up the legal framework. That is not enough time for the notoriously lengthy legal process to come up with anything clear. Therefore, the number of questions regarding the process which Icann left unanswered means we will witness a mad scramble for the new names. As before, everybody will be trying to get new domains, whether they have the legal rights to do so or not.

Icann has left the process side of applications refreshingly undefined, true to their libertarian, first-come first-served culture. I can only wonder if "independent.travel" is a name that The Independent will get as a default, or will the lawyers have to spend the next three years in court, wresting it from some Ohio-based independent travel shop for students that managed to sneak in before the paper's application?

Since trademark law doesn't cover suffix issues for online names, this is a whole new world of grey areas that will make lawyers deliriously happy, but all of us utterly miserable and out of pocket.

The risk to your business is significant, as in the midst of the new chaos someone can snap up your domain with a nice .shop after it and confuse the hell out of your existing customers. So who wants these changes? I can't imagine that an existing business owner online would even remotely support Icann's proposals. If Amazon.com registers Amazon.shop, this move will not drive any more customers to them just because there is .shop at the end of the brand. The .com suffix is doing the job just fine, and country domains are perfectly sufficient to direct people to local sites.

But Amazon will have to register amazon.shop anyway, just in case some lesbian specialist shop for advanced female erotica tries to take amazon.shop as the name for its own outfit. Lastminute.com will have to register lastminute. travel, as the risk of letting some west-London bucket shop run away with that name is simply too high to contemplate.

Personally, I strongly suspect that the reason for coming up with the new domains is strictly to revive the somewhat flagging business of domain names registrars. These guys pay subscriptions to Icann so there is a clear reason why it wants to keep them happy. Since all existing business owners will have to register new domains as a defence and protection from undesirable squatters, Christmas will come early for the registration boys.

If I run racinggreen.co.uk for the Racing Green fashion brand, obviously, I will have to register racinggreen.shop. It will not give me more customers, but it will stop squabbles in case some Formula One fan decides to register it and sell home-made racing-green car miniatures from that URL. Since many of us run multiple sites, the number of new registrations will be massive, creating a glorious windfall for the name registrars. What it really amounts to is Mafia-style "protection money" rather than something we really need or want.

What's more, my quick focus group composed of my office colleagues who shop on the Net has confirmed my suspicions that consumers don't want these new domain names, either. People have to remember a heck of a lot of names anyway and because there are really just two categories to try - .com or .co.uk - there is a good chance that typing in the brand you are looking for and trying a couple of different suffixes will get you to the site. But if you have to try six different domain name endings before hitting on the right one, you probably won't even bother, thus ruining our little cognitive strategies that have worked so well over the years.

We as Net consumers have rather limited memory powers, which is the main reason for the success of the guys from Real Names. On their search engine you simply type in Sony, and it is the job of Real Names to ensure that they will take you to the correct, legal and authorised Sony website. Simple and easy on my brain, in line with the Less-is-More approach to URLs.

Esther Dyson and Icann are barking up the wrong tree with their idea of adding complexity to the already byzantine way of constructing URLs by using multiple suffix concept. Human beings are simply too limited in their memory storage capacity to handle anything more than a straightforward .com suffix.

So beware of not-for-profit organisations led by intellectuals with too much time on their hands. Minimalism and reducing complexity is the way to go with domain names. Adding more will lead to chaos, unnecessary expense and new BMWs for lawyers, while irritating consumers or business owners. Good reason to lobby Icann to drop the whole thing and focus on something useful for a change.

eva@never.com

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