A development in web addressing that occurred last year hasn’t received a great amount of trade press coverage, but the implication for web-based marketing— B2B and B2C both— may be quite significant. A series of articles in the Washington Post have covered this well.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that regulates the naming of Web addresses, has opened up the generic top level domain name string (gTLD)— what appears to the right of the dot in an URL (e.g., .com, .net, .edu)— to include hundreds of new endings which may relate directly to what a company does or brand represents.
ICANN has expanded domain names before, but, as Brian Winterfeldt (an attorney for Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, DC) notes in a Washington Post article by Catherine Ho, this is the first time there is a large-scale opportunity for companies to apply for whatever they wanted. (Winterfeldt has helped companies apply for gTLDs like .coach for the handbag manufacturer and .hbo for the cable channel.)
As the article notes:
Having exclusive control of a domain would give a company an edge over competitors by claiming a space to market products or services that their competitors cannot enter. If the parties can’t agree amongst themselves, it will go to an auction process before ICANN, and the highest bidder will win.
The proceeds of the auction go to ICANN, which has already made $350 million from the applications that cost $185,000 each to submit. According to Winterfeldt, who is also a member of ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency, a group within the organization that advocates for brand owners, there is no limit to how much a company can bid.
Fallout from the development is being seen on multiple fronts.
One area is in brand protection, where companies are moving to protect their brands as they new domain names become available. As Ho points out in a subsequent Post article: “The race to snap up a fresh batch of Internet addresses is spawning a new round of disputes as businesses scramble to secure exclusive rights to words that represent their brand — or at least prevent their competitors from doing so.”
A good example of this is Dish Network’s (Dish) attempt to claim .direct as a gTLD. DirectTV challenged that bid, claiming that its use by Dish would confuse consumers seeking their services. Their challenge was upheld by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which rejected Dish’s attempt to claim the tag.
Among Internet industry officials, many are raising a red flag at this expansion of domains, contending that it could cause widespread disruptions. Craig Timberg has addressed this on the Post’s Technology section:
Particularly troubling is the possibility of widespread “name collisions” that could happen when domains used by internal corporate computer systems — such as “.corp” or “.home” — get assigned to the Web more broadly. This could cause systems to fail, blocking access to e-mail or other internal programs, and also could open sensitive information to theft, some experts say.
Timberg notes that ICANN and its supporters dispute this, saying that the potential problems have been long understood and will be resolved before new domains are approved. He quotes ICANN’s chief security officer, who says that as the new domains will be released gradually, over the course of months, there is ample time to manage problems if they arise.
For businesses of all sizes, it behooves consideration of what is coming. Webmarketing continues to become increasingly strategic, and the possibility of promoting one’s brand— or having it attacked— via web domain will give many pause.
“What’s in a name?” The Bard would perhaps be astonished at how many dollars and hours are being thrown at that question in today’s digital age. Some are going to come out of this smelling sweet; others not so much.