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Are You Ready For One of the Biggest Changes on the Internet in a Decade?

What's Really At Stake In ICANN's Coming New Top-Level Domain System

By Published on . 24

Tic Toc …

ICANN's New Generic Top-Level Domain Program is just about to kick off and I bet most of you are wondering what the heck those are anyway (don't feel bad if you don't know – neither did I until recently). Then, you are also probably wondering why you should care.

First, the basics. A "generic top-level domain" is the part of the domain name to the right of the dot, e.g. in "http://www.ICANN.org" - the "org" is the top-level domain (TLD). There are 22 generic TLDs (gTLDs) such as .COM, .ORG and .NET, and around 250 country-code TLDs (ccTLDs) that are specific to certain countries, like .JP for Japan and .MX for Mexico.

With ICANNs New gTLD Program to commence January 2012, the doors will be thrown wide open and virtually any word can become a gTLD if the company or organization meets certain criteria:

  • They can pony up the hefty application fee ($185,000)
  • They can prove they can afford to run a gTLD year after year
  • They can justify why they should own a particular word as a gTLD – e.g. a travel company is unlikely to be successful at justifying buying ".Apple" as a gTLD but they can justify buying ".adventure"

If a company can meet these criteria - then congratulations – they've just become a registry. Amazon can buy ".books" and JetBlue can buy ".fly". And if two companies want the same word and can't reach an agreement on their own, an auction commences with the word going to the highest bidder.

The application process itself also has significant impacts because, by default or design, it seems optimized to drive a gTLD land grab within a very short, four month time frame. All applications are closed and not publically disclosed until after the brief application period is over (on April 12, 2012). With no assurances of another application period, many companies will feel compelled to take advantage of this possible 1x only event.

As to the "so what" of all this - well - there's a long list:

From an industry perspective: The leading marketing trade organizations like the ANA and IAB have been vocal and consistent critics of this initiative. Other critics have questioned the motives of former ICANN members who voted this initiative through and who subsequently left ICANN to start or join companies that sold gTLDs.

From a marketer's perspective (and their agencies): Here's the bad news. If you're at a Fortune 300 company, it is likely your IT/ legal department will advise you to purchase multiple (possibly a dozen) gTLDs.

Now even if you manage to avoid getting hit directly with that cost (for now), you will still have to spend a hefty chuck trying to figure out what to do with these new "marketing assets." Unquestionably, there will be many [expensive] experiments to explore useful applications of gTLDs - from SEO optimization to new types of customization programs, e.g. personalized "judyconsumer.books" URLs for a highly customized experience.

In the end, it's likely you may have to redirect active program dollars into this experimental space. This adds yet another layer of complication to an increasingly complicated marketing environment.

From a consumer's perspective: Just when we thought it was kinda safe to go into Internet waters because we had a basic understanding of what a safe URL should look like … now anything's possible. With hundreds of new gTLDs likely to be introduced starting next year, consumer confusion is virtually guaranteed. There's little doubt fraudsters intend to exploit this new window of vulnerability.

From an emerging country or company perspective: The stakes get even grimmer for an emerging company or country. If you don't/ can't qualify today – chances are you are locked out for a very long time – maybe forever.

Now you can see why there is a lot at stake. Yet, when I spoke to my IT and marketing peers at the largest companies, there was a near universal lack of information on this topic! So somewhat spontaneously (driven by timing urgency) and with the help of CADNA (the not-for-profit Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse), I helped create an industry conference called "What's At Stake" for November 1 in NYC that is open (free) to ANY brand marketer needing to understand this space. The conference was created as an industry service and includes keynote speaker Esther Dyson, founding Chairman of ICANN, HUM News, FairWinds Partners and Friends of the U.N. among others.

The goal for this discovery conference is to drive a productive change to the current process by presenting a balanced view of the new gTLD Program with an emphasis on exploring the impacts, and proposing to ICANN alternate processes we believe are not too late to implement (read full recommendation to ICANN here).

There's a lot at stake for marketers and consumers. Let's stand up and make our voices heard. Join us for this invite-only event (a.k.a. no fee to attend if you are working at a company or agency). For more information and to submit for an invitation, please visit: www.whatsatstake.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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