FEATURES & COMMENTARY
Los Angeles, CALIF. — The push to expand the Internet’s naming system beyond the pervasive “.com” category comes to a head this week as the technical administrators meet to select new suffixes such as .biz, .health, and .nom.
But ICANN, the U.S. government-backed, nonprofit group charged with setting Internet naming conventions, faces a contentious week-long meeting here as backers of new names like .web to .kids and .xxx fight for last-minute acceptance.
Controversy is nothing new to ICANN, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, which has weathered criticism from all sides in the short-time since the U.S. government handed it control of the explosively growing communications medium.
Many observers believe that ICANN’s own legitimacy hinges on the success of this expansion, the first broad policy move since the organization was formed at the White House’s invitation in 1998.
If a consensus does not emerge from this experiment in virtual grass-roots democracy, the ICANN board may elect to once again delay any final choices, fearing any missteps could lead to a new “land rush” to stake out prominent names by so-called cyber-squatters.
“With ICANN, you never know what’s happening,” said Chris Ambler, the chief technology officer of Image Online Design, whose proposal to formalize a .web category on the Web has been left in limbo by an ICANN staff evaluation report on the subject.
“It’s hard to believe that ICANN as a body could ignore doing something on behalf of kids,” Tim Yrastorza, vice president of business development for .Kids, a proposed “safe-place” for children on the Internet. “The market is scrambling for a solution in this area.”
The new generic names would compete with the .com suffix used in more than 20 million Web names and which continues to grow at an exponential rate. The Internet’s hodgepodge of names is organized into two categories – seven generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs) such as .com, .net. .edu and country-code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) such as .uk for United Kingdom or .cn for China.
Fourteen of the original 44 proposals for new generic domains were recommended in an ICANN staff report last week. Others were labeled “premature” for this pilot stage. A final decision will be made by ICANN’s board of directors, after hearing public comment at the conference and from Internet discussion boards at the http://www.icann.org . But the board’s choices are expected to diverge little from the staff report.
Applicants in the running come from three basic categories, including general-purpose names such as .biz and .web and personal names such as .nom. Special-purpose names including .health and .union won support.
Also making the hurdle was an innovative plan by think-tank Stanford Research International of Menlo Park, Calif., to create a new location-based naming system called .geo for use by companies.
Advocates of the name expansion plan say the new categories would introduce meaningful naming categories instead of the catch-all .com category used by millions of individuals and families along with businesses ranging from the world’s top corporations to the adult entertainment industry.
Among the proposals to advance was a .biz domain name proposal put forth by a powerful industry consortium known as Afilias LLC. The group is backed by most of the existing domain name registrars, including VeriSign Inc.’s (VRSN.O) Network Solutions unit and Register.com (RCOM.O).
Also passing the staff report hurdle were plans to create the .union category for trade unions, .museum for qualified museums and .health for groups meeting World Health Organization medical standards.
Criteria used to select the winners include how the proposal enhances the utility of the Internet in new ways, balanced against the need to protect the technical stability of the Internet and the intellectual property rights of existing name holders.
Competing plans to create a .tel category were rebuffed by ICANN staff after the International Telecommunications Union intervened called for more time to settle the pollical and technical complexities of such a plan.
Also failing to win support was the .travel category put forth by the airline industry and a .mas category for mobile Internet devices put forth by global wireless handset leader Nokia of Finland.
Several proposals that failed to win ICANN staff support are seeking to build a groundswell of support among ICANN’s menagerie of stake-holding groups, which include technicians, the world’s governments, industry groups and loosely organized Netizens who often dominate ICANN’s proceedings.
Critics of the expansion process said the vague selection criteria and the pell-mell speed of the decision-making process had left them confused over how to proceed with their proposals. The complex, rudderless structure of ICANN has frayed tempers and fueled grass-roots protests at the conference. The threat of lawsuits overhangs every ICANN move.
Louis Touton, ICANN’s general counsel, left open the possibility that those proposals among the 44 that fail to win acceptance in this first round will be considered later. “No application is ever permanently rejected,” he said.
“This is a proof-of-concept phase to establish a limited number of TLDs (top-level domain names),” Touton said at the conference.
The name expansion is also meant to once and for all boost the international diversity of the Internet, which remains very much in the grip of U.S.-centered administrators such as ICANN, based in Marina del Rey, Calif.