Big changes are coming to the Internet and brand owners need to be prepared. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit corporation created in 1998 to oversee the Internet’s domain name system, is greatly expanding the number of generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) available for use on the Internet. A Top Level Domain (TLD) is a domain at the highest level in the hierarchical Domain Name System. A TLD appears at the end of a domain name. Thus, for example, in COCACOLA.COM, the .COM serves as the TLD. Generic TLDs such as .COM should be differentiated from country code TLDs such as .US and .UK. Country code TLDs are not affected by the current changes.
Initially, the Internet featured only eight gTLDs including .COM, .EDU, .GOV and .NET. In 2000 and 2004, ICANN approved thirteen additional gTLDs including .BIZ and .INFO. Now, however, a process is underway that will expand the number of available gTLDs into the hundreds if not thousands. As a result, companies and organizations alike will need to be ever more vigilant in protecting their trademarks and brands. While companies have regularly purchased numerous Internet domains with various gTLDs to protect their brands proactively, doing so in the future may become prohibitively expensive.
The first round of new gTLD approvals is well under way. In 2012, ICANN received over 1,900 applications from entities interested in controlling a myriad of new gTLDs ranging from .AARP and .LOREAL to .VIDEO and .WEATHER. Bridgestone and Goodyear submitted competing applications to obtain .TIRES while four separate entities plunked down the $185,000 application fee to obtain .INSURANCE. Under the current ICANN guidelines, the entity who gains control of the .INSURANCE gTLD will become the registry (or operator) for that gTLD and could be able to exclude competitors and others from registering second-level domains under the gTLD. (A second-level domain appears immediately to the left of the TLD and operates as a sub-domain within the TLD). The list of applied-for new gTLDs can be found on the ICANN website at http://newgtlds.icann.org/en.
ICANN currently projects that the first new gTLDs could become active as early as October or November, although some delay is likely. Waves of new gTLDs will likely follow in subsequent years. The City of New York, which has acquired the .NYC gTLD, hopes to begin making .NYC available to city businesses and residents by the end of the year.
Particular controversy has arisen over attempts by corporate juggernauts such as Amazon and Google to monopolize gTLDs with generic widespread application. So-called “closed generic” gTLD applications would permit the owners exclusive use of certain gTLDs. Amazon EU submitted “single registrant” applications for exclusive control of several new gTLDs including .BOOK and .AUTHOR. Google did the same for .BLOG. As proposed, these entities would have the right to exclude everyone, including competitors, from registering or utilizing a domain containing the closed generic gTLD. Thus, for example, Amazon would have sole control over .BOOK and exclude Barnes and Noble from registering any domain using the .BOOK gTLD.
As might be expected, this possibility has caused quite an uproar. Scott Turow, president of Authors Guild, wrote ICAAN to express objections on behalf of its 8,000 members:: “Placing such generic domains in private hands is plainly anticompetitive, allowing already dominant, well-capitalized companies to expand and entrench their market power. The potential for abuse seems endless. … ICANN, of all entities, should be mindful of the critical need to maintain an open, freely competitive Internet. Please rethink this project.” Such sentiments seem to have hit a nerve. In June, ICANN voted to suspend applications for closed generic gTLDs pending further review. Stay tuned.
Savvy business owners should stay abreast of these developments and make sure that their interests are protected. Procedures exist to challenge the approval of new gTLDs. Additional application periods are likely for those interested in acquiring gTLDs.