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15 February 2011

More delays likely for .kiwi and .fonterra


For several years, big brands have been hoping to acquire email addresses ending with a name or brand of their choice. Adult websites have also been hoping to get the .xxx domain. But achieving this is proving harder than anyone other than a cynic with a knowledge of international negotiations would have imagined.

ICANN, an international body whose job it is to co-ordinate the website and email naming protocols for the internet, has the task of coming up with an agreed protocol for allowing these and other new top level domains (TLDs) to be created.

To reach another person on the internet you have to type an address into your computer - a name or a number. That address has to be unique so computers know where to find each other.

In the early days of the internet, a three level address format was agreed. The TLDs were either generic (like .com, .org, .net or .gov) or based in ISO country codes (like .nz for New Zealand or .nu for Niue). Later, more generics were added, including .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro, bringing the total number of generics up to 21 today.

While ICANN has made it clear that it wants to start allocating new TLDs, the stance of the US Government and ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) are proving problematic. While the internet and ICANN are meant to stand for freedom of information, in practice many representatives of national internet organisations are beholden to the wishes of their less-than-democratic governments.

GAC's concerns include trademark protection and the treatment of geographic strings. As for the US Government, they want to be given the right to veto any TLD they are unhappy with. Since GAC operates by consensus, this would likely open the censorship floodgates.

According to Kevin Murphy, a journalist who specialises in internet affairs, if Uganda objected to .gay, Iran objected to .jewish, or Egypt objected to .twitter, then TLD applications for these names would be killed off.

In addition, the US wants TLDs that refer to sectors subject to national regulation (such as .bank, .pharmacy) to be more closely regulated (or blocked altogether). It also wants “community” applications more strictly defined. In both cases, the US wants the applicant to be sanctioned by the recognised representative body for the sector or community. No recognition would mean no TLD.

The aim here is noble – no one wants .bank or .pharmacy to be run by hucksters or the TLD for a religion, ethnic group or race to be snaffled by an outfit with an opposing creed. But, as Murphy points out, how many industries, religions and ethnic groups have a recognised entity overseeing them globally?

The Kiwi brand

From a New Zealand perspective, it would be desirable to have a reputable group managing a potential .kiwi TLD. For Fonterra, acquiring a .fonterra TLD would presumably be no problem, but acquiring .dairy would doubtless face strong opposition from other dairy interests around the world.

Whether acquiring .fonterra would make business sense for Fonterra is another matter. If the registration was purely for defensive purposes, it wouldn’t make sense. If a speculator tried to acquire it, Fonterra would have the right as the trademark holder to object to the registration anyway.

As for phishers and spammers, they already have multiple options for registering domain names that include the word ‘fonterra’ without having to bother with the new TLDs. For Fonterra to defensively register every conceivable combination is impractical now, let alone those that could be created by the new TLDs.

In short, the US wants the new TLDs programme to be substantially overhauled, in ways that are certain to draw howls of protest from many in the ICANN community. The risk, is that if the US gets its way and some nations start blocking TLDs, then this might well prompt some aggrieved nation or nations to start up their own rival DNS root, thereby fragmenting the internet.

This outcome may be welcomed by some totalitarian regimes, but it is in total conflict with the values the internet stands for. Solutions for these issues are already covered in a draft ICANN guidebook for TLD domain applicants without bestowing veto power on governments. ICANN wants this guidebook to be approved at its San Francisco meeting in March, but if the US recommendations make it through the next GAC meeting, that’s a deadline that could be safely kissed goodbye.

The Kiwi chair

Playing an important role in these matters is ICANN’s chair, New Zealander Peter Dengate Thrush. He says ICANN will, before launching the new g(eneric)TLD programme, be considering public comment on the final draft of the guidebook, in addition to consulting with the GAC.

If all goes well and ICANN can push US concerns aside, ICANN could possibly be accepting applications for new TLDs as early as mid-July. But don’t hold your breath.

As for making your own application, it may pay to first count your petty cash. You will probably need about $US400,000 to start a new top-level domain, plus whatever you have to spend in an auction to buy the name if someone else wants it too.

- Trevor Walton

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