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New domains at last
(IDG) -- After several years of agonizing debate, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers finally appears ready to expand the list of top-level domains beyond the familiar .com, .org, .gov, .edu and .net.
ICANN's board of directors is expected to set the rules for adding new generic top-level domains at its mid-July meeting in Yokohama, Japan. The move would unleash millions of fresh names for Web sites, relieving the crunch in the crowded .com universe. There are still some unresolved questions associated with the addition of new domains, and debate on the topic is expected to be lively. But ICANN is no stranger to controversy. The group triggered a firestorm of criticism when it selected board members in secret and again after floating a plan to impose a $1 per name fee on all new registrations.
The domain expansion plan is set to move slowly; a few different approaches will be tested before many new additions gain approval. The Internet's infrastructure could theoretically handle hundreds more top-level domains, but ICANN is charged with protecting the network's stability, and no one can predict what would happen if many new domains came at once.
Many large businesses, especially those in the entertainment world, remain wary of new domains, which they fear could become havens for cybersquatting and other misbehavior. They are loath to see any new open-ended domains created that would require them to again register names of their trademarked brands.
ICANN has already established a mechanism for trademark holders to boot cybersquatters without going to court. Relying on private arbitration, the "Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy" has generated almost 1,000 cases since taking effect in December. About half those cases have been decided, with the complainants winning 80 percent of the time.
With growing evidence that the dispute-resolution process is working, ICANN's board will almost certainly approve a plan at the Yokohama meeting to start taking applications for new domains. A staff plan released for comment June 13 plotted a four-month process with new top-level domains appearing early next year. While that schedule could be pushed back, no one doubts that new domains are coming.
In the meantime, ICANN will set up minimum requirements for new domains to guide potential applicants. "We've got to get the policies out first," says ICANN Chairwoman Esther Dyson. "If I'm going to apply for something, I want to know what I'm applying for."
Proposals for new domains run the gamut from a .xxx region (creating an online red-light district) to .sucks, for Web sites that criticize businesses.
Under current rules, anyone can register a .com domain name and set up a Web site of any kind. Some of the proposed new domains, however, would have stricter rules. A domain could be run as a restricted space limited to noncommercial sites, for example. Unions, banks or other industries could establish and police their own domains.
Adding new domains would likely loosen the grip of Network Solutions on the naming process. The Herndon, Va., firm runs the database of all .com, .net and .org names, though it competes in registering new names.
Even as it moves ahead on the issue of new domains, ICANN has yet to completely escape from debates over its legitimacy. At least two issues are likely to arise at the Yokohama meeting that could stir new criticism.
First, the U.S. General Accounting Office is reviewing the legal authority underlying the establishment of ICANN by the Clinton administration. The report, expected in early July, could raise questions about U.S. involvement in Internet policy.
A number of congressional committees have already examined the same issue. But Congress is rushing to finish up its work in a hectic election year; unless ICANN moves in a completely unexpected direction, there is little appetite or energy on Capitol Hill to get involved this year.
Second, a stumbling block could emerge from ICANN's efforts to hold an open and fair election among all Internet users to choose nine new members for its 19-member board. The so-called at-large members of the board are to be selected by votes from anyone over age 16 who possesses an e-mail address and registers at members .icann.org/index.html.
But public-advocacy groups Common Cause and the Center for Democracy and Technology still have some qualms about the election process. They are pushing for an easier way to nominate candidates, and they want a wide-open campaign debate.
If ICANN can handle those hot issues, it just might move away from controversy and get to work expanding the Internet.
ICANN releases plan for adding Internet domains
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