The battle over new Internet domains is being fought right now

This is the first article in a series that examine Internet governance. How it is organized, exercised and what impact is has on you.

Mark Twain once said : « Buy land, they’re not making it anymore». However, with the rising sea levels he might have been too optimistic. But what is lost to high water can perhaps be won elsewhere. The Internet is expanding: there is new land to be had. And although it is virtual, it could well turn out to be worth more than premium pay-dirt.

Let me introduce “ICANN”. If you haven’t heard about this organization, you are in good company: Most haven’t. The acronym stands for the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers” and they are for all practical purposes the landlords of the Internet. With a difference: unlike their Earth-bound name sakes, they can conjure up endless plains of virgin land without sending a single soldier out on conquest. And they are doing just that, right now. More than 1400 new Top Level Domains are set to be created in the next twelve months. But some of these uncharted territories come with the label “here be monsters”… 

A “domain” is an area (of land) that someone dominates. It is owned. Internet domains are no exception. The country-specific domain “.FR” is owned by the French government. They exercise control over who can rent a plot of it. Another example is the “.COM” domain. Here, ICANN have outsourced oversight to VeriSign – the sole source for anything ending in “.COM”. VeriSign, in turn, have contracted with countless so-called “registrars” to be their point-of-sale for parcels in .COM land.

So, when you buy a domain name – for example – you pay a registrar for taking care of the “mountain of paperwork” that goes into staking out your plot. The registrar pays a fee to the authoritative registrar – usually a fixed annual sum – who in turn pays ICANN (or in the case of country-specific top level domains, the government). Oh and in the interest of being precise: you don’t actually get to buy a domain – you lease it. Typically for a multi-year period (it’s the “recurring revenue” model here!).

Since the dawn of the Internet, little has happened to the Top Level Domains. We have all come to know about the .NET, .INFO, .ORG and all the country-specific domains. Only a few new Top Level Domains have seen the light of day, like .XXX (yes, it is the euphemism for .SEX – more on that further down) and .BIZ. But 2012 is different. ICANN opened for applicants to manifest themselves with submissions for new Top Level Domains, almost without any limitations. Any organization who wanted to create new land – such as .GAME– could fill in the application form.

Before you get all excited and want to drop whatever you are doing to join this land rush, be advised that for each application filed there is a small fee associated. US$ 185.000 to be precise. Also, you are too late: The application deadline has passed. With 1930 applications, ICANN is set to cash in some US$ 350 million. That’s how much virgin new land is worth in the virtual world.

The applicants are of course betting their new domains will reveal rich ores of Internet gold worth much more than the pesky two hundred grand initial investment.

So what are the names of all these new lands? Well, Oklahoma hasn’t been applied for. Neither has RANT, RAGE or GOODRIDDANCE. Nor DIVINE, GOD or HAPPY. The full list is available in the references section at the end of this post. However, there are some interesting applications:

ICM Registry LLC – the current authoritative registrar for the .XXX Top Level Domain has filed for the creation of .SEX, .PORN and .ADULT Top Level Domains. The surprise is that they have only one competitor – Internet Marketing Solutions Limited – and they only filed for the .SEX domain. Talk about a rich ready-to-be-mined deposit, with practically nobody else in sight holding a shovel.

There is a catch, though: Applications are subject to public comments and – more severe – public protest. Anyone can browse the ICANN database for new domains and submit a (motivated) protest. Ultimately, an application may be rejected if such disputes cannot be settled. And guess what? The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has filed some 160 objections to applications such as the three above, but also against .BIBLE, .WINE, .GAY, .POKER and .SUCKS among others (They are not alone in that effort). If anyone had filed for .WOMEN or .WOMAN it would likely have raised their objection count above 200. Or how about .GIRLS? Then again, maybe not, since the Kingdom haven’t found any issues with the application by Exclusive Registry Limited for .MEN. It is going to be interesting to watch how ICANN settles that sort of disagreement.

The question is: Where to draw the line? Whereas objections that point out potential confusion and spelling issues are in everybody’s interest, should opinionated protests based on xenophobic, racist, religious or moral view points be taken into account? And should self declared proprietors of what is allowed and what is not – on a global scale – be accorded any such authority? We may not all be .PORN addicts or .GAME fanatics or be in a perpetual state of .WINE intoxication – we may not even like any of it. But personal preferences aren’t sufficient justification for bombastic calls for interdiction. .BANS rarely work as intended.

The process ICANN have put in place is … well, it is complicated. First off, ICANN figured they didn’t want to get their fingers caught in the meat grinder between applicants and protesters, so they engaged with three external entities to provide arbitrage in four categories of objections. The following provides an overview:

  • “String Confusion” category.  Handled by ICDR – International Centre for Dispute Resolution.
  • “Legal Rights” issues are the remit of WIPO – World Intellectual Property Organization (a UN agency)
  • “Limited Public Interest” will be taken care of by ICC – International Chamber of Commerce
  • “Community” objections are also handled by ICC

To lodge an objection, a fee of several thousand dollars must be paid to the entity handling the dispute.

While the “String confusion” and “Legal rights” categories are relatively straightforward with regard to their objectives and constraints, the “Limited public interest” and “Community” are minefields.

ICANN says the “Limited public interest” category is intended for objections claiming that

The applied-for gTLD string contradicts generally accepted legal norms of morality and public order recognized under principles of international law.

What exactly “generally accepted legal norms of morality” is can be rather tricky to determine – in any jurisdiction. Living in France, I can tell you that there are quite a few provisions spelled out in the law that are quite simply not “generally accepted” … and that is before going into anything to do with morality.

Once you get to the part saying “… recognized under principles of international law” it is clear that stronger-than-legal tobacco has been in play. Then again, legal norms of morality regarding tobacco may not fulfill the “generally accepted” criterion. In any case, ICANN and the arbiter have promised us they’ll figure out what domain text strings conform to generally accepted legal norms of morality… etc. Good thing someone finally have the balls to grab the bull by the horns.

The “community” category is there to receive objections from the communities which “the gTLD string is targeting” and from whom “a significant portion” have “substantial opposition to the gTLD application”. Who decides what “significant portion” and “substantial opposition” means? The ICANN committee created with that purpose in mind does. Who have seats and voting rights there? Hard to tell. I gave up after spending close to an hour on the question (please provide info if you have any).

To accommodate private (Internet-) citizens, ICANN have provided an interface for submitting comments. However, if you want to be heard you have to hurry: Comments submitted any later than 26 September 2012 will not be taken into consideration. A major flaw in this set-up is the absence of any interface to view current official objections – let alone comment on them. For example, on the ICC web area dealing with the ICANN project displays this:

 There is no coherent information available on who have objected to what. Such lack of transparency, made worse by the maze of websites, links and often obscure procedures, does not bode well. Less naïve souls might easily see all the hallmarks of secrecy, power games and careful designs to paint an image of honesty and democratic processes, while in effect creating a smokescreen behind which to exercise governance – but not the kind that is “of the people, for the people and by the people”.

The applicants and applications (pdf):

Most popular domains
Full list – sorted by applicant
Full list – sorted by domain name


ICANN – Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
ICC – International Chamber of Commerce
WIPO – World Intellectual Property Organization
ICDR –  International Centre for Dispute Resolution
ICM Registry applies for .SEX and other new Top Level Domains
Saudi Arabia objects to several new Top Level Domains


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