New top-level domains in sight

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) agreed Sunday to move forward with a plan to add a few new top-level Internet domains by early next year, while sidestepping a nasty controversy that erupted over a plan to shrink the group's board of directors. Meeting in Yokohama, Japan, the group selected by the Clinton administration in 1998 to oversee the Internet's domain name and address system put off until November deciding exactly which new domains to add. Domain proposals that have emerged in the past few months include .sex for adult material, .union for labor unions and .shop for ecommerce sites. A group of leading registrars for the .com domain, including, and Alabanza's, said they were working on a proposal to add a new generic domain - much like .com - that they would manage jointly. A proposal to amend ICANN's bylaws to eliminate over the next two years nine of its board members chosen by the Internet community at large drew fierce criticism from non-profit groups, government officials and others. The remainder of ICANN's board consists of the group's chief executive officer and nine people chosen by groups with close ties to the domain name system. ICANN staff argued unsuccessfully that the plan was meant to give the board of directors an opportunity to re-evaluate the need for at-large directors, who could be added back through another bylaw change in the future. Their argument was not persuasive to critics. Led by US non-profit organizations Common Cause and the Center for Democracy and Technology, a broad range of groups around the world continued to object. In the end, ICANN's board voted Sunday to study the question of at-large directors but scrapped the plan to phase them out. Under the approved domain name expansion plan, ICANN will accept applications for new domains from August 1 until October 1. Each application must detail the backer's technical, financial, business and management capabilities, policies used to run the domain and arrangements to protect users and continue the domain if the backer fails. Applicants will have to pay a non-refundable $50,000 submission fee - a rate that outraged non-profit groups that hoped ICANN would adopt a lower fee for those with lesser means. The applications, or at least substantial portions of the applications, will be made public for two weeks of comment in October. On November 20, after ICANN's next board meeting, the group will announce which proposals have been accepted and commence negotiations to sign formal contracts with backers of those domains. Negotiations are to be completed by December 31, with new domains going live early in 2001. Members of ICANN's board emphasized that the initial few domains approved in November will be a test for the roll-out of additional domains in the future. To create the most useful test (assuming a broad range of acceptable proposals is submitted), ICANN is likely to approve one or two domains in each of three categories: fully open domains, restricted or chartered domains and noncommercial or personal domains. But no one was willing to make any predictions, since nothing like this has been tried before. "We're just so uncertain about what to expect," said ICANN chairman Esther Dyson after Sunday's meeting. The five days of meetings generally reflected a quieter, calmer tone than previous ICANN meetings held in Cairo, Los Angeles and Santiago. Apart from the controversy over shrinking ICANN's board of directors, which dissipated when the idea was scrapped, participants and board members generally spoke in moderate and respectful tones with minimal yelling or sniping. ICANN board member Vint Cerf, senior vice president at WorldCom and one of the fathers of the Internet, displayed his quick wit frequently during Saturday's open forum and Sunday's board meeting. "The audience is permitted to applaud now," he quipped when no one reacted after the board's vote on new domains. When a question arose of the meaning of the phrase "soup to nuts", Cerf joked it was when a bowl of soup was spilled in the lap. The decline in intensity from previous meetings followed moves by ICANN over the last year to include more input from members of the Internet community at large. Moreover, many of the most contentious policy questions ICANN faced were resolved at previous meetings. A report by the General Accounting Office released a few days before the meeting reaffirming the legality of ICANN's establishment may also have contributed. Sunday's vote to add more domains also reflected diminished opposition to new domains from intellectual property owners, such as movie studios and professional sports leagues, that had long fought such a move for fear that the virgin name space would become a haven for trademark infringement. However, ICANN's policy for resolving disputes between domain-name holders and trademark holders has mollified some of their concerns, and Sunday's plan required that managers of proposed new top-level domains submit a policy for protecting intellectual property. The plan also listed protection of intellectual property as one of the guidelines to be used in evaluating which new domains to approve. "We're encouraged by the two references to intellectual property protection," said Mike Heltzer, government relations manager for the International Trademark Association and a member of ICANN's intellectual property constituency, after Sunday's vote. "We hope to work with and we intend to reach out to registry applicants in terms of discussing with them the nature and types of IP protections they have." ICANN's policy did not require that trademark holders be given any special right to a first shot at registering names including their trademarks in new domains, as trademark holders had proposed. However, applications for new domains could still contain such provisions. Some Internet service providers continued to express fears that the proposed timetable for introducing new domains was too short. They complained that ISPs would bear the brunt of consumer complaints and bad publicity if a rush to register new names under new domains were to crash the system. Some ISPs also expressed concern that they might be found legally liable if one of their customers were unable to break through the expected congestion to register under a new domain in the early going. Little was done during the meeting to resolve ICANN's funding crisis. The group faces a shortfall in raising its $4.2 million budget, mainly because about $1.5 million owed by managers of country-code top-level domains has not been paid. In discussions over the shortfall, managers of the country domains and government officials representing some of those countries made clear that the problem was not opposition to ICANN or resistance to paying for its operations. Rather, they said, they had not worked out a proper way to contract with ICANN for the services it provides. Such contracts are an especially delicate matter, because the U.S. government - not ICANN - still legally owns the Internet's root server, which forms the basis for all top-level domains. Whoever controls that server technically can designate who can manage a country domain and register new names in it. Adding to the confusion, governments around the world have different policies for assigning managers to run their country-code domains, and some are in the process of changing managers. Significant discussions took place in Yokohama over how to bridge the gap and allow ICANN to craft legal arrangements with country-code domain managers, but resolution will await another day.

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