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On the Introduction of new Top Level Domains into the Domain Name System

Vint Cerf

The introduction of new top level domains (TLDs) has been the subject of debate and action in the ICANN arena since 1999 (just a year after the organization was founded). Herein are some thoughts about some of the issues associated with increasing the top level domain name space.

First, it should be clear that the Domain Name System is hierarchical in nature and that the mechanical processes associated with adding a domain name vary with the "level" of that domain name. For clarity, consider foo.bar.com. "com" is a top level domain; "bar.com" is a second level domain and "foo.bar.com" is a third level domain. The hierarchy is limited only by the upper bound on domain name length.

Adding a third level domain (or a fourth in cases like foo.co.uk) is usually the internal decision of a second (third) level domain holder. Adding a second (third) level domain involves formal registration, usually through a registrar, with a top level (or second level) domain registry. Adding a new top level domain invokes ICANN, its multi-stakeholder processes, the Board, and contractual negotiation by the ICANN staff with the prospective top level domain operator. Compliance issues arise in the monitoring of TLD operation.

Top level domains come in several flavors. Country code TLDs (ccTLDs) either derived from the so-called ISO 3166-1 list (with some variation such as .uk and .eu) or from the process of introducing non-Latin character ccTLDs. In general, it might be said that these TLDs are "self-branding" since they have the unique property of representing countries in the domain name space.

Generic top level domains, on the other hand, span a more diverse space. The original seven (not counting .arpa) were extremely generic: com, net, org, edu, gov, mil, and int. The motivation for their creation was to share the load of registration among parties to whom this responsibility was delegated by the then Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, Jonathan Postel. Their utility stemmed in part from their generality. In practice, gov, mil and edu have tended to be associated only with US institutions. Analogs of these generic names have been replicated in many ccTLDs such as co.uk or com.au.

Beginning in 1999 and in subsequent years, ICANN began a process of opening up the TLD space, eventually adding aero, asia, biz, cat, coop, info, jobs, mobi, museum, name, pro, tel, post and travel. Additional TLDs in the generic space have been proposed such as xxx, among others. These have experienced quite varied success in the marketplace. Now, in 2011, ICANN is poised to open up proposals for a wide range of new generics in Latin and other scripts.

Top Level Domains are not necessarily automatically self-branding. That is, their existence does not assure large scale registration by users. Not all TLD success should be measured by that single metric, of course. Museum, for example, is restricted to bona fide institutions that qualify as museums, so a more useful metric might be the percentage of eligible institutions that have registered. Generally speaking, branding requires real effort (and sometimes, expense) to achieve.

There are a number of issues arising as new TLDs are considered. Trademark holders worry that they will have to monitor an increasing number of potentially infringing registrations or expend resources to place defensive registrations. ICANN has to contend with the processing of applications and establishment of contractual agreements with the operating parties. The Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN has understandably expressed interest in and concerns about some proposed TLDs that in its view pose public policy problems for respective member administrations. Users of the World Wide Web, and, more generally, the Internet, may find it harder to remember or guess likely domain names of target web sites simply because of the proliferation of new TLDs. This does not exhaust the list of debated topics both within the ICANN context and in other national or international forums.

With regard to public policy issues, it seems worth noting that the GAC and ICANN Board have already adopted a practice in which GAC consensus concerns can be expressed and, if the Board decides on a course in conflict with GAC recommendations, it is required of the Board, under the By-Laws, to respond within a relatively short time to explain its rationale. Owing to the likely diversity of new TLD proposals, it is not unreasonable to anticipate debate about some proposals on grounds of public policy concerns. GAC consensus on any particular TLD issues would be an important expression of input to ICANN Board decisions and it seems useful to take that into account in fashioning procedures for dealing with new proposed TLDs. Absent such a mechanism, it is conceivable that administrations will attempt to block troubling TLDs in some fashion, leading to increased fragmentation of connectivity as seen from the domain name perspective.

Finding a balance among the competing interests associated with new TLDs has not been and will not be a trivial exercise but this is precisely the task before ICANN and the multi-stakeholder philosophy upon which it was founded.

By Vint Cerf, Vice President & Chief Internet Evangelist, Google Inc.
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New top level domains considered harmful George Kirikos  –  Feb 18, 2011 8:04 PM PDT

Vint: How would you respond to the W3C Technical Architecture Group and Tim Berners-Lee paper "New top level domains considered harmful” (with my notes here)? ICANN appears to have ignored the existence of that paper (which was opposed to new TLDs in general, not just .mobi and .xxx, see the title tag).

You mention "finding a balance" — doesn't that imply that the costs and benefits must be examined in detail? Yet ICANN has utterly failed to do any acceptable economic analysis. Allowing an unlimited number of new TLDs does not seem consistent with "finding a balance", and instead appears to be consistent with ICANN maximizing its own revenues at the expense of the public.

Do you acknowledge the possibility that the public interest might best be served with either no new TLDs (save for IDN versions of existing TLDs that are bundled and aliased with existing registrations at no extra cost), or a very small number (i.e. under 20)?

Furthermore, even if new TLDs are added, wouldn't it be optimal to maximize the benefits to consumers if there is a tender process, whereby TLDs are operated at the lowest possible costs to the registrants? (e.g. if .shop is to be addded to the root, there could be a competitive tender for a 5 year contract; if Afilias bid $2/yr per domain, Neustar bid $2.50/yr per domain, and VeriSign bid $2.25/yr per domain, then Afilias would win the contract; after 5 years, another tender would take place, etc.) Google itself bids for contracts in this manner for its cloud computing services (i.e. Google Apps for government agencies). Why should registry operators gain perpetual monopolies, instead of competing in the exact same way that Google does for contracts?

These are not new questions, by the way. Folks have been asking them for the past few years in the ICANN comment periods, but ICANN has simply ignored them.

"Do you acknowledge the possibility that the David Wrixon  –  Feb 19, 2011 6:42 AM PDT

"Do you acknowledge the possibility that the public interest might best be served with either no new TLDs (save for IDN versions of existing TLDs that are bundled and aliased with existing registrations at no extra cost), or a very small number (i.e. under 20)?"

Public Interest? Do you mean American Public Interest? Or perhaps more accurately American Vested Interest?

Lots of debate yes, particularly in the David Wrixon  –  Feb 19, 2011 6:40 AM PDT

Lots of debate yes, particularly in the area of IDN, but Action has been rather patchy.

It might be useful to point out to members of GAC that their IDN ccTLDs obtained under the Fastrack are part of the New gTLD process. If they don't sign this off then their name are invalid and should be removed from the Root.

Balancing the Unbalanceable Brian Retkin  –  Feb 19, 2011 9:13 AM PDT

Will competing politics, interests and influences make any future agreement at best temporary, subject to circumvention by those in opposition?

The Web’s continuing evolution inevitably leads to some (uncomfortable) changes.  In the past, the domain ".org", originally aimed at non-profits, became a free-for-all.  A Country Code made available to the highest bidder, no longer represents the original holder’s nation.

The issues of trademark, copyright, libel etc are already well-established and well-worn in a market of over 200 million domain names.  Should such issues, ultimately the remit of courts of law, be a reason to limit expansion?

Theoretically for any domain name a good website should flourish, but instead, memorability is king.  The hope is for a more level playing field with competition less dominated by a few large institutions.  With unlimited addresses this becomes possible (and conversely, cybersquatters will find it much harder to cover all the bases).  Having one huge internet “global phone book” can be problematic and fragmentation (for want of a better word) is just one alternative.  In fact, in one form or another there already are several “Internets” in infinite Cyberspace.

For unlimited options, the Dashcom Registry is a space where users can create any domain or TLD in any language.  Dashcoms are true top level domains in the format http://music-com or http://stock-market or http://high-heels (Examples Only).  Users of Dashcoms in over 90 countries worldwide may well encounter some of the same issues as Dotcoms, and yes the system runs with an APP (or ISP link-In), but in this arena there is far more capacity to be memorable, there is far more ability to be unique.

These are only True TLD on a David Wrixon  –  Feb 19, 2011 9:42 AM PDT

These are only True TLD on a remote inaccessible vacuous parallel universe.

The Theory of Relativity Brian Retkin  –  Feb 19, 2011 11:04 AM PDT

Not-so-long ago, many thought that a “remote inaccessible vacuous parallel communication system" (AKA the Internet) was a total waste of time & money. 

Local Shopping Mall, SomewhereVille, USA.  11:01am December 1994

Retailer: Why, Mr Website designer should I pay you tens of thousands of dollars to build and maintain me a W-E-B-S-I-T-E? for my mega-bookstore on the I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T? (a remote inaccessible vacuous parallel telephone exchange).

Webdesigner: So people can visit you more easily.  It’s really convenient!

Retailer: Are you mad? Why would anyone fork out for overpriced computers, extra phone lines, modems and routers, an OS…then learn to use it all....Just so they can buy a book from me?  All they need to do is call me on the "local accessible non-vacuous parallel telephone exchange".

Webdesigner: OK then, well what if I throw in a nice domain name for free?…maybe something simple like http://www.amazon.com .  Sign up today and I’ll even set up your email and payment systems too at no extra cost.

Retailer: A Domain What?  An E-Where? Really Mr Webdesigner, who is going to remember all of that?  Just listen to what NBC are saying about this.

In short, Dashcom Domains, Dashworlds.com and other companies and organisations involved with alternative Domains are simply part of the evolution process.  Maybe this is not everyone's cup of tea, but as with so many things, on the Internet one size does not fit all.

@Vint Absent such a mechanism, it is Paul Tattersfield  –  Feb 19, 2011 3:23 PM PDT

@Vint

Absent such a mechanism, it is conceivable that administrations will attempt to block troubling TLDs in some fashion, leading to increased fragmentation of connectivity as seen from the domain name perspective.

This is a very important issue which the current ICANN board seems to have failed to get its mind around. However this issue does not stand alone.

Much of the considered reasoning necessary for an elegant and equitable solution to extending the incredibly successful existing DNS has been has been drowned out by self interest and sadly stifled through the failure of process at ICANN.  For example:

If .brands are a success then consumers will come to perceive organizations to the right of the dot as superior. This means once a large player in any vertical moves to their .brand, all the medium sized companies will have to consider spending $185,000 a year + $25,000 a year to gain the same level of implicit branding. For startups and smaller players the cost of admission to this implicit branding advantage is likely to prove prohibitive.

Generic TLDs have even wider implications - The ICANN board in its recent resolution recognized this conflict of interest and resolved to have ICANN’s compliance staff carefully monitor the .jobs registry future actions. This resolution was only possible because .jobs is a sponsored gTLD. In the current proposal for new gTLDs it will not be possible to correct such inequities as they will be “designed” into the actual framework.

Giving any company an implicit framework derived advantage through a contractual arrangement with the regulator to use and compete against their competitors in the same vertical is a serious breach of public trust.

Not only will ICANN not be able to protect entities which have to compete from the second level, there is also no mechanism for ICANN with its current proposal to make sure new gTLDs end up with entities which will prove good guardians of the namespace. In fact much of the commercial interest for category defining generic new gTLDs may come from single entities seeking commercial advantage over their competitors.

Given these issues, and the many other fundamental issues still remaining is it really appropriate to have the ICANN Board trying to “out point” governments whose day to day business is not the DNS and as a consequence have to rely on input from lobbyists who are trying to pull such a flawed process in ways that are less damaging to their client’s interests?

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