New top level domains and the great Internet gold rush

How many more domains do I need to buy?

How many more domains do I need to buy?

Last week we learned that singer Taylor Swift purchased the domain names TaylorSwift.porn and TaylorSwift.adult in a move designed to prevent others from buying them and misusing her name. She is not alone, already Microsoft bought Office.adult, and Harvard University purchased Harvard.porn.

The domain name arms race is on.

If you have never heard of the .porn or .adult domain names, do not worry, they are new. In 2011, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) approved a program allowing the expansion of the generic top level domain names (gTLDs) from the well-known few (.com, .net, .biz, .org) to pretty much anything imaginable that can be expressed in standard ASCII characters and non-Latin scripts. The stated goal is to “promote competition in the domain name market” and to enhance consumer choice. ICANN strongly denies that this is a blatant money-making scheme on their part, designed to benefit the domain name industry. Regardless of the reason behind the move, it is clear that we are witnessing a domain name land-grab of unprecedented proportions since the dot com bubble.

The procedure for applying for new gTLDs is open to anyone (I briefly toyed with the idea of applying for .geek as an investment), but in reality the prices make it prohibitively expensive for most people, with no guaranteed return on investment with the exception of some popular domains. To even participate in the application process one needs $185,000 USD (including a $5k deposit), which starts an evaluation period that may lead to more charges. The applicants must demonstrate that they have the requisite technical, operational, and financial capability to operate a registry, and that the string is not similar to other existing domains or applications. Then there is a period for opposition to the domain, and finally the application is forwarded to a final stage. If there are two applicants for the same string, then there is a bidding process, culminating in the award of the string to the highest bidder.

Over 500 new strings have been approved already, including .accountant, .lawyer, .football, and .yoga. The sums involved in the auctions process are astounding, for example the .app domain recently was awarded for $25 million USD. But at the moment there are two real winners in the domain name wars: ICM Registrars owns the .xxx, .adult, .porn and .sex domains; and Vox Populi Registry, which owns the .sucks domain.

One could argue that there is truly a legitimate need for the sex-related domain names, but it is worrying that enterprises and artists feel the need to pre-emptively purchase such domains to stop others from damaging their reputation. It is also possible that even if a celebrity managed to purchase the .porn version of her name, imaginative trolls will find a way to circumvent even your best efforts (taylor-swift.porn anyone?)

But the most worrying development has been the adjudication of the .sucks domain, as I can’t think of any legitimate use for such a string. Vox Populi claims that their domains will act as a “central town square” where consumers can “find their voices and allow companies to find the value in criticism”. They have even put together a laughable video featuring a Martin Luther King Jr speech, and endorsed by none other than Ralph Nader trying to state that .sucks somehow allows people to protest against brands. If that is the case, it will be a very pricey protest. Vox Populi has announced that it will charge trade mark owners $2,499 to register .sucks domain names, and more importantly, some domains will be identified as “premium”, which will be individually priced. I can’t see this as anything other than a company being given a licence to extort payment from every large brand and artist in the world.

Whatever happens, we are in for a bumpy ride. Firstly, there will a period of defensive registrations like the one by Microsoft and Taylor Swift. Then there will be a period of malicious registrations by cybersquatters and trolls. Then there will be a period of objections using the unified dispute resolution procedure (UDRP), where trade mark owners and celebrities will object to the above. Finally, if the .sucks domains are allowed to stand, this could also lead to a number of defamation suits.

In other words, plenty of money to be made by the unscrupulous.

I’m off now to browse the for new GTLDs. Hmm… HarryPotter.world, JamesBond.porn and gameofthrones.rocks are all available!