The shortage of desirable dot-com domain names may soon come to an end, thanks to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (ICANN's) selection Thursday of seven new top-level domains that allow individuals and businesses to create new online addresses.
The selections culminate a five-year effort -- some might say struggle -- to approve new top-level domains, alleviating the lack of desirable names in dot-com. The decision also paves the way for competition to Network Solutions Inc., which runs the registry of dot-com addresses and is now owned by VeriSign Inc.
Although ICANN approved only seven out of 44 proposed new domains, the group says it hopes to add many more domains in the future -- assuming the first round of additions proceeds smoothly.
The new domains approved are: dot-biz, restricted to businesses; dot-info, open to all comers; dot-name, reserved for personal registrations by name; dot-pro, set aside for licensed professionals such as lawyers, doctors and accountants; dot-aero, for anything related to air transport; dot-museum, limited to museums; and dot-coop, for cooperative businesses such as credit unions But before those new domains are open for business, the sponsors of each must negotiate exact terms and conditions with ICANN. That process is scheduled to last until the end of December, but ICANN staff warned that the deadline could extend into the new year.
The arduous selection process was marked by controversy. ICANN selected the dot-info proposal backed by Afilias, a consortium of 19 firms that register names in dot-com, including Network Solutions. Critics of Network Solutions, including two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, had called on ICANN to reject that bid because of the company's involvement and perceived conflict of interest. But ICANN's board approved the bid regardless, after learning that Network Solutions owns just 5 percent of Afilias and will not operate the registry for dot-info.
Others were unhappy that Afilias plans to give trademark holders an exclusive period, during which they can register trademarked names before the new domains are opened to the general public.
ICANN did not, however, award Afilias the dot-web domain, the consortium's first choice. The dot-web suffix is not part of the Internet's mainstream addressing system now, but is part of a fringe system run for the past few years by Image Online Design. Web surfers currently can reach dot-web addresses registered by the tiny California company, but only if they adjust some settings in their browser. Few people have done so.
Image Online Chief Executive Officer John Frangie said his company would continue to operate dot-web as a non-mainstream domain and would try to win ICANN's approval in the future.
"We will continue to make an aggressive case to ICANN that we are more than qualified to be selected as a new top-level domain," Frangie says.
Backers of Afilias say they are somewhat disappointed with Thursday's selections because their market research showed greater interest in dot-web than dot-info. But since dot-info was the only completely open domain approved by ICANN, Afilias officials remain optimistic that they still can draw millions of new registrations.
"It wasn't what we wanted, but we're pretty happy with ICANN's decision," says Afilias board member Thomas Barrett. "The key thing for me is that no one else got an unrestricted TLD (top-level domain)."
Beleaguered dot-com registrar Register.com also could get a boost from ICANN's decisions. The New York-based company, which has seen its stock price slip from a high of US$116 in March to less than $8 Thursday, was a primary sponsor of the dot-pro domain, and also was a participant in the dot-info bid by Afilias.
Some backers of proposed domains that didn't make the cut complained that ICANN had acted unfairly. At least one civil liberties group blasted the process, charging that it is biased in favor of big companies.
"The process itself was deeply flawed," says Christopher Chiu, a researcher and organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "They tried to become an arbiter, and all they did was make arbitrary decisions."
After deciding on the new domain names, ICANN's board selected WorldCom Inc. executive Vint Cerf to replace Esther Dyson as the group's chair.