Bored with .com? Nagged by .net? The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has finally announced seven new top-level domains, the last part of the domain names we see so often in email addresses and URLs. Depending on how fast new registrars can establish approved registry agreements and get operations underway, we might see some of these new top-level domains operating by the end of the year, though others probably won't be operational until the second quarter of 2001.
How We Got Here -- In the 1980s, the Internet was primarily operated by agencies the U.S. government and commercial activity was strictly forbidden - harking back to the original purposes of the Internet as a U.S. research and military communications network. As a result, the Internet's original top-level domains (TLDs) reflected the sorts of U.S. organizations expected to use such a network: .gov, .mil, .edu, .org, .net, and .com. (Ironically, though "dot-com" has been a buzzword of late, a .com address was often cause for derision in those days of the non-commercial Internet.) By the early 1990s, international TLDs were established, and by mid-1995 the backbone of the original Internet, NSFnet, was turned off for good, making the Internet a privately run, commercial operation independent of the U.S. government.
Well, not quite. The U.S. government had contracted out naming authority and registration services - to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and Network Solutions (NSI), respectively - and those contracts had expiration dates. If you wanted to do business on the Internet, you had little choice but to register a .com domain through Network Solutions, which ran the only registry, regardless of where in the world you did business. Suddenly .com names became valuable, both because .com was the only appropriate TLD for businesses and because short, memorable, and easily typed names were essential for advertising and entering into Web browsers. The name rush was on, along with its associated bickering, trademark disputes, and lawsuits. Network Solutions' role as sole registrar - and the paucity of appropriate TLDs - had created a widely perceived roadblock in the commercial development of the Internet, and the outcry for additional registrars and TLDs became a deafening roar.
Throughout 1997 and 1998, the hubbub increased as various groups attempted to deal with the naming crisis. Some made proposals for expanding the number of TLDs and name registrars, but those proposals were generally heavily criticized (especially by the international community). The U.S. Department of Commerce got into the act and made its own proposal for domain naming changes - and it still held the reins, since its contracts with NSI and the IANA expired in September 1998. As the deadline loomed, competing proposals for creating a "new IANA" as a non-profit organization were floated - despite the best efforts of Network Solutions to let its contract expire, thereby maintaining its monopoly by default. Eventually, the International Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN), a non-profit organization, was created to manage naming and registration issues. ICANN was originally proposed - somewhat arbitrarily - by Jon Postel, one of the Internet's primogenitors, just before his death in October 1998.
I Think ICANN -- ICANN still reports to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but it's not a regulatory authority for the Internet. Rather, ICANN's job is to coordinate allocation of things like IP numbers that must be universally accepted across the whole Internet. ICANN also has to handle all the naming and address issues which birthed it, and it must establish and maintain mechanisms for dispute resolution. ICANN is run by a 19-member volunteer board of directors, which is supposed to represent the Internet's major stakeholders throughout the world's business, technical, academic, and user communities. In essence, ICANN is supposed to facilitate the transition from the ad hoc- and U.S. government-controlled technical operation of the Internet to a privatized, fully international system.
Sounds simple, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. Along with the technical issues, ICANN also faces a myriad of political, economic, and cultural issues, just like other international organizations. Although ICANN is often criticized for being out of touch with the Internet community (show me 19 people who can be in touch with the entire Internet community!), ICANN has been trying to keep its processes and procedures open to the public. Its progress on domain naming has been slow, complicated, and the subject of constant criticism from all sides. It doesn't help that they're dealing with fiscal and technical iniquities which (in Internet terms) have been around forever. Eventually, ICANN invited applications for new TLDs - including a non-refundable $50,000 application fee - which it would evaluate according to number of criteria, including the effect on the overall stability of the Internet, the extent to which a new TLD addressed unmet needs, not creating confusion for Internet users, bringing competition into domain naming, and the applicant's technical and financial ability to operate the new TLD.
Meet the New Kids -- Here then are the seven new top-level domains approved by ICANN:
.aero, to be operated by the Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques (SITA), a Belgian airline telecommunications firm. The .aero domain is intended to be used for the air transport industry; it's unclear why the air transport industry warrants its own top-level domain, but ICANN may see it as a precedent for future industry-specific domains.
.biz, to be operated by JVTeam, a new company formed by Delaware-based NeuStar and the Australian firm Melbourne IT. The .biz TLD was proposed by a number of applicants, but ICANN judged JVTeam's proposal to be the best. The .biz TLD will seemingly be unrestricted for use by businesses - like .com - but it's been criticized for being too English-specific, and ICANN is being sued because .biz is similar to the existing TLD for Belize (.bz).
.coop, to be operated by the Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association, which represents over 700,000 cooperative associations around the world. The .coop TLD will be used exclusively by non-profit cooperatives.
.info, to be operated by Afilias, a consortium of nineteen existing registrars ostensibly for organizations primarily providing information services, although its use will apparently be unrestricted. A large consortium like Afilias seems to run counter to one of ICANN's initial goals - to promote competition amongst registrars - but they've been granted the .info TLD anyway.
.museum, to be run by the Museum Domain Management Association, a newly formed non-profit founded in part by the International Counsel of Museums and the J. Paul Getty Trust. The .museum TLD will be used by the worldwide museum community.
.name, to be operated by the Global Name Registry. The .name TLD may prove the most interesting to average Internet users, since it's intended to be used mainly for personal Web sites and email addresses.
.pro, to be operated by RegistryPro, an Irish company owned by Register.com and Virtual Internet. It is intended to be used by doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other providers of "professional" services.
What the Future May Bring -- A number of seemingly decent suggestions didn't make the first cut, and ICANN's analysis of the different suggestions is worth a read.
ICANN's TLD process is ongoing, so more TLDs will likely be added in the future. For instance, the World Health Organization was disturbed not to have been granted the .health TLD and plans to keep pursuing it - a recent study by the Pew Internet Project showed that Internet users frequently turn to the Web for health and medical advice, so a top-level domain which groups together sites that have been certified to provide reliable medical information could be useful. But how such a registry would operate is unclear: what's considered sound medical advice in one nation or culture can be a crime or pure quackery in another. Similarly, a proposed .kids TLD ostensibly for material that's suitable for children raises the issues of who decides what material is kid-friendly (again, with all the cultural and national baggage that entails), and whether material published on .kids sites is monitored after registration has been granted.
Another unanswered question is the extent to which new top-level domains simply make the Internet more confusing for everyday users. Folks involved in the ICANN process are technically savvy, and probably don't have much trouble with the existing system of TLDs. But many Internet users are already flummoxed by .com, .net. org, .gov, and .edu: will creating .biz and .info help them in any way? Or is ICANN merely creating (or being used to create) a gold rush for groups who could assemble technically sound proposals, and who will no doubt encourage trademark holders worldwide to register with them posthaste to avoid having their brands diluted? Only time will tell.