Major Internet standards organizations earlier this month signed an agreement paving the way for a new system of naming Internet sites. In addition to the now-familiar .com, .edu, .net, etc., the new system will offer marketers a choice of seven domain names under which to register: .store, .firm., .arts, .rec, .web, .info and .nom.
The policy will likely create a veritable alphabet soup, as Web site owners jockey to gain new domain names. The popular .com won't go out of existence, but companies will have to decide whether to create a site using .store or one of the other domains.
Making things even more complicated is the fact that several groups, ranging from the U.S. government to the European Union to the current Internet domain name registry, Network Solutions Inc., are questioning the authority of the International Ad Hoc Committee (www.iahc.org), the group that created the new domain name policy.
The Coalition for Advertising Supported Information & Entertainment, meanwhile, is actively monitoring the situation and hopes to issue a report to members within a month covering the issues, alternatives and steps marketers should take.
What are those steps? Advertising Age, via e-mail, put the question to the experts: Don Heath, president-CEO of the Internet Society; David Maher, partner with Chicago law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal; Richard Hovey, manager of external standards for Digital Equipment Corp.; Doug Wood, CASIE attorney and partner with New York law firm Hall Dickler Kent Friedman & Wood; and Ben Saitz, manager of media operations at Modem Media, Westport, Conn.
Here's what they advise:
Who's behind these new domain names?
The International Ad Hoc Committee, a group representing several Internet standards organizations (see box on this page).
Representatives of these groups spent several months formulating a plan and have agreed on seven so-called "top-level domain names" and presented them earlier this month to a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva.
More than 100 entities, including Digital and MCI Communications Corp., signed a Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to back the new names.
As a marketer, why should I care that there are new domain names? What's wrong with ".com"?
There's nothing wrong with .com as a domain name. It's just that there are, proportionately, way too many people using it. Today, there are more than 1 million domain names registered-the vast majority being .com names. As a result, it's becoming increasingly difficult for people to find a meaningful domain name for their business.
New names like .store and .firm provide more choices for marketers.
While this affords a lot more variety of names, it also could pose problems for trademark holders, as you'll see below.
So what happens to my .com domain, and to Network Solutions Inc., the company that currently handles registration in the U.S.?
Nothing happens to your current .com name. You can keep it and run it just like you normally do.
As for NSI, there is uncertainty about its future. Its contract with the National Science Foundation to manage registration of domain names ends next March.
NSI says it will remain a player, but it's unclear what role it will play.
When does the new domain name system take effect?
If all goes according to plan, the goal is to install 28 companies to handle registration of Web domains worldwide by yearend.
But it's not as simple as that. The U.S. government, though it hasn't taken a formal stance on the issue, is concerned about how the domain names will be assigned and how trademarks will be protected.
A separate group, calling itself AlterNIC, has proposed its own domain naming system. Although this proposal doesn't have significant backing, it represents a potential challenge to the IAHC's system.
How do I know if I should use .store, .web or .firm? are chosen, things like procedure and fees will be hammered out.
How does the new system propose to protect my trademarked name?
The IAHC plan has a complicated dispute resolution system intact under the World Intellectual Property Organization.
A marketer can, if it has a strong trademark, pre-emptively prevent anyone from registering their mark under a different domain, though the method for doing this isn't clear yet.
A marketer can also use the WIPO online mediation mechanism, where sanctioned mediators from throughout the world mediate disputes. Traditional court litigation is a possibility as well.
If I run McDonald's Hardware Store, can I get a domain like "mcdonalds.store"? Or does McDonald's Corp., the hamburger restaurant, have rights to that name?
The new system is designed to open up new domain names to entities having the same name but operating in different industries. So if McDonald's hardware registered .store before McDonald's Corp. did, then the hardware store wins out. McDonald's can challenge the hardware store under the processes described above.
Bottom line for trademark holders: Go for the exemption and be safe.
Won't these new domain names confuse consumers?
It's very likely there will be consumer confusion, particularly if a company chooses "mystore.store" and another chooses "mystore.firm." The solution, it seems, will be new or revised search engines enabling consumers to search individual domain names.
There is nothing magical about .com. Eventually, the assumption that a Web site address ends in those three letters will go away.
So what should I do now to make sure I get the domain name I want?
Experts recommend several courses of action. First, educate yourself about the IAHC proposal and how it differs from the current NSI system. Next, find out what your access provider intends to do about the new domain names.
Lastly, be prepared for a mad rush to register names once a system of registries is approved. Because there's no waiting list for names, be sure you determine which names you want and be prepared to act quickly.