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Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs

Much of the discussion about proposed TLDs centres around domain names as a form of classification: ".mobi" for mobile device content, ".kids" for child-safe content, language codes for language-specific content, ".museum" for museum-related entities, and so on. Notoriously little activity has been forthcoming in actually implementing these proposals, and the select few that have been allowed out into the world are, shall we say, a tad arbitrary.

I'd like to engage in a little thought experiment where we abandon the "few TLDs with carefully chosen meanings" paradigm, and instead consider the benefits of a cornucopia of completely meaningless TLDs. This isn't a proposal — yet — but rather an idea which I think deserves an airing. You may think it intriguing, or possibly the worst idea in the history of bad ideas: any well-reasoned feedback is welcome. If your immediate reaction is "why would anyone want a meaningless TLD?", then please bear with me — I'll get to that point shortly.

A Sketch of the Idea

Imagine that a large slab of root namespace has been set aside for the cornucopia: just as all two-letter TLDs are reserved for country codes (whether currently allocated to a country or not), let us imagine that all "one letter followed by at least two digits" TLDs are reserved for the cornucopia. The number of possible TLDs in the cornucopia is therefore so large as to be inexhaustible. We will, however, only populate this namespace on demand, starting with the shortest names: the "alpha-digit-digit" names (2600 distinct TLDs).

The existing registry/registrar/registrant arrangement would be maintained, with some subtle differences. Rather than specifying the full domain name, the registrant specifies only the second level part. Thus, the registrant says to the registrar, "please give me a 'foo' domain from the cornucopia". The registrar passes that message on to the cornucopia registry, and is allocated such a domain name at random from the available pool. It may be "foo.h12", or "foo.p45", or any of the other available "foo" domains in the cornucopia.

If there are no such domains left in the cornucopia, then it's time to open up another block of namespace. If the registrant is unhappy with the allocation (because "h12" is their unlucky number, or something) then the only option is to discard the old name and register a new one. This reinforces the meaninglessness of the TLDs by making it expensive to fish for those few that might be meaningful in specific contexts, like "b52".

Would Anyone Buy It?

So why would anyone want a meaningless TLD? The first and foremost reason: generics! Generic terms are highly coveted in ".com" space, and it's safe to say that they are all taken. In fact, they're probably all taken in all the available TLDs that allow registration of generic terms. The cornucopia allows everyone to register their favourite generic term, since there is plenty for all. The meaningfulness of the second-level name can make up for the meaningless TLD to some degree. A less compelling but equally valid reason to want a meaningless TLD is the case where none of the available meaningful TLDs convey the meaning you want: better to have no meaning than the wrong meaning.

In most cases I would expect people to prefer one of the traditional TLDs over a random cornucopia name, but the cornucopia name will be available for registration, whereas the traditional TLDs are a hit and miss affair, with more miss than hit. The existing scarcity of "good" domain names forces most would-be registrants into compromise, and the cornucopia offers another path of compromise.

Technical Considerations

The proposed initial 2600 domains would increase the number of domain names in the root by an order of magnitude. This is no small undertaking, but it could be broken down into arbitrarily small chunks for the sake of manageability. Provisioning of names could then be ramped up as confidence in the process increased, and as demand required.

The potential number of TLDs in the cornucopia is very large, of course, but it is unlikely to grow the root to anywhere near the size of most second-level domains. According to Verisign's "Registry Operator's Monthly Report" for July 2004, there were over thirty million registered names in the ".com" zone and over five million registered names in the ".net" zone at July 31, 2004. The cornucopia only needs to have about as many TLDs as the most popular registered term, and it seems unlikely that this will approach — let alone exceed — the size of existing viable zones.

The cornucopia also lends itself to a much more balanced distribution of names in the DNS. In contrast to the existing tiny handful of names at the root, followed by more than thirty million in ".com", the random allocation of cornucopia names into second level domains will create a much more even distribution between the root and its immediate delegates. Given that the existing massively unbalanced system works, it's not clear how much it really matters, but it seems more technically elegant.

Economic Considerations

Cornucopia seems very attractive from an economic perspective because it eliminates one form of artificial scarcity. I believe it does so in a relatively gentle way: the introduction of cornucopia would reduce the number of new registrations in ".com" (it's bound to take market share from somewhere), but it would not undermine the intrinsic value of the meaningful TLDs, causing a market crisis in the process. A "readjustment", perhaps, but not a crisis. Then again, I'm not an economist. Some educated commentary would be appreciated on this point. What economic effects can be anticipated from cornucopia?

A past CircleID article (Part I, Part II, Part III) talked about auctions as a means for letting the market decide which TLDs were more valuable, but this doesn't apply in the plentiful and undifferentiated namespace offered by cornucopia. I would expect registration prices to fall towards the actual cost of provision, with very little possibility of a secondary market (in stark contrast to the traditional namespace).

Legal Considerations

Some rich pickings arise when legalities are considered: think Trademarks, Dispute Resolution, and Cybersquatting. Tackling that last point first, how does one "cybersquat" an indefinitely large namespace? It's not feasible. No matter how many times you register "X" in cornucopia, the next registrant should be able to do the same. Cornucopia should render cybersquatting impossible by design. That in itself should put an end to dispute resolution, right? After all, dispute resolution is only an issue where ownership is exclusive, and two (or more) parties are arguing about it. Sadly, my observation of the legal process to date gives me cause to doubt that this logic will be adopted voluntarily, largely because of Trademarks and the Deplorable Doctrine of Dilution.

Trademarks may well remain a problem, but this has more to do with the intrinsic problems of trademark law than with cornucopia as an idea. If it becomes impossible to pre-emptively register every possible domain "X", where "X" is the trademark of a company with a large and savage legal department, what will said legal department do? I'm going to assume they'll use every available means to attack other registrants of "X", and I can only hope that cornucopia will act as a pacifying influence for the following reasons.

The lack of a theoretical need for "dispute resolution" (due to unlimited supply and non-exclusivity) should be enough to persuade ICANN that cornucopia does not require a specific dispute resolution process: both parties can register "X" (within cornucopia) so far as the Internet is concerned, and if some law says otherwise, then take it to the appropriate court. On top of that, "X.com" can be understood to mean "X, the company", and "X.de" can be understood to mean "X, Germany", but what do we understand of "X.j31"? The TLD component is quite specifically meaningless, so we can not make the term as a whole mean something. I hope we can argue the moderate position that usage of "X" in a domain must lend itself to interpretation as a trademark before it infringes, and a cornucopia domain containing "X" would not in and of itself be sufficient evidence of infringement (although a particular use of the domain name might).

Note that there's a distinction to be made here between obviously malicious registrations and simple name collisions. Phishers and other malefactors maliciously register names that are similar to some victim's well-known mark in order to defraud or otherwise profit dishonestly. This already happens, and cornucopia may offer some additional scope for it, but it won't change the nature of the problem or its remedies. Addressing this kind of criminal activity is not (and ought not to be) within the realm of trademark disputes.

In short, I believe the cornucopia proposal offers hope that we might re-open some of the middle ground between rampant cybersquatting and rampaging hordes of trademark lawyers, as well as pushing back the legal tussles to within national boundaries, rather than to international organisations of dubious representative legitimacy.

Social Considerations

Internationalisation is perhaps the biggest buzzword in DNS circles, so far as social issues go, and it's a complex and multifaceted problem. Cornucopia doesn't make any direct positive contribution to internationalisation as I see it, but it does "get out of the way" a little. For starters, the TLDs in cornucopia are meaningless and randomly assigned, so no language gains any semantic benefit from them. It's non-preferential in that sense, at least. All questions of language representation within the namespace are reduced to technical questions, since there are no policy arguments as to whether a particular name should be allowed or not. If it's a valid DNS name, it can be registered — end of discussion.

In the more general sense of "what people want from a domain name" (see also Brad Templeton's "Goals for a domain name system" and CircleID article An Economic Analysis of Domain Name Policy - Part I), the cornucopia offers necessarily mixed results. Necessarily, because many of the things that people want are mutually incompatible. "Memorability" is one of the usually desired qualities, and cornucopia TLDs are meaningless (which hinders) but short (which helps). The second level has an endless supply of any word you want, which can potentially aid memorability, convey meaning, and provide an outlet for personal expression. Cornucopia names are not guessable: you'd have to take a "search engine" approach to finding an already-existing domain. Lack of guessability is a disadvantage to business entities (who generally covet a readily-guessable presence in ".com"), but not to John Smith, who just wants a personal domain name and is resigned to it being unguessable one way or another, since all the obvious ones are taken by other John Smiths.

Bear also in mind the social aspects of the economic and legal considerations, which I hope will result in cheaper costs and reduced risk of domain registrations being overturned by marauding bands of lawyers. Cornucopia offers tremendous potential for a "lifetime domain" because there's very little reason to want someone's already-registered name rather than a fresh one. Contrast this with the state of affairs in ".com", where covetousness is the norm.

Variations on the Idea

In the above scenario, I propose an initial 2600 meaningless TLDs, with space reserved for more as the need arises. An alternative to consider is this: if a particular word is so popular that all 2600 instances are taken, then promote it to a TLD of its own. Existing cornucopia registrations using that term could be grandfathered into the new TLD by reversing the terms, such that registrants of "X.Y" were also granted "Y.X". The rationale here is to reduce root zone growth: the really popular words can become zones in their own right and grow those zones as needs be without expanding the root. Deeper analysis would be required to determine whether this idea has sufficient merit to overcome its obvious difficulties.

More trivially, there may be an argument for omitting certain letters from the cornucopia TLDs, simply because the letter "l" and the number "1" are so visually similar, or because "n" and "m" sound similar. We can afford this kind of tweaking, because it's all syntax for the sake of convenience, and no semantics.

Concluding Remarks

Cornucopia certainly changes the dynamics and politics of domain names. Technical issues aside, the sheer weirdness of it may prevent it ever being considered seriously. On the other hand, the prospect of everyone's favourite words becoming available as domain names is pretty attractive. It is, perhaps, the proposal that's come closest to reaching the oft-neglected ideal of "a domain for every person, for life". Is it workable, or can it be made to be workable? Would it be a good thing if it existed? I'm inclined to think so, but I'm even more sure that the idea needs ample discussion before it can go anywhere in practice, so please, let the discussion commence.

Originally at Nutters.org.

By The Famous Brett Watson

Related topics: Cybercrime, Cybersquatting, DNS, Domain Names, ICANN, Security, Top-Level Domains

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Comments

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs JC  –  Dec 03, 2004 8:07 AM PDT

As an alternative… why build this on DNS?  A Peer-to-peer discovery service could be designed to supplant/extend the DNS directory.  This service could match any cornucopia address to its "proper" IP or DNS address, allowing access to the web content.  The service could be built as a browser plugin that facilitates searching/ranking/modifying names and addresses.  This solution would allow an independent development team to create and roll-out this service without modifying the current DNS structure. 

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs Christopher Ambler  –  Dec 03, 2004 1:14 PM PDT

I'm not sure I see a compelling economic model for being the registry, especially if you consider that ICANN will continue to allow more specialized (indeed, generic) TLD registries.

Who would buy a random-letter-TLD domain when they can get their name at any of the myriad of new, generic TLD registries that ICANN posits will be created starting next year?

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs The Famous Brett Watson  –  Dec 03, 2004 7:21 PM PDT

On the matter of random-letter TLDs versus meaningful generic TLDs: a meaningful TLD is very attractive if it happens to be in your language and have a relevant meaning. If it also has loose registration permissions, then it will result in a "land grab" for famous trademarks and generic terms (assume the TLD in question is ".shop" and fill in the blanks: "sex.shop" will be registered in the first nanosecond). Consequently, a privileged few will be lucky enough to get the generic term they were after, and everyone else is left to pick up the scraps, as happens with ".com" and the other popular TLDs. The also-rans may well prefer a good generic term from cornucopia to a second-rate term in the new gTLD.

Alternatively, if the meaningful TLD in question has very strict registration policies (offering some sort of guarantee that the registered name bears a meaningful relationship with a real-world entity), then registration opportunities are reduced, and cost is increased. In short, such a domain has a high barrier to entry relative to cornucopia, and so many people will consider cornucopia a better option.

In any case, the existence of cornucopia is not incompatible with meaningful TLDs. If economies are your preferred judge, implement both cornucopia *and* as many meaningful TLDs as you like, and "let the market sort it out".

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs Brad Templeton  –  Dec 03, 2004 7:42 PM PDT

This is almost exactly the same proposal as one I made back in the late 90s, as I recall, though I had revised it a little bit (Remove domains like 'a00' that might be seen as having intrinsic value.  The goal is they all have the same value, no one is inherently more attractive than another.)

However, I used that mostly as an example, because in reality you don't want strings that can be easily confused for one another in names.  You get a really nasty typo and memorability problem.

You reference one of my pages but I guess are unaware of the other proposals.  In the end I concluded that trademark law actually had worked out a way of dividing up namespaces and assuring all names started out equally valuable — but then gained value as you invested in them.

However, there are other intermediate solutions, including letting anybody who wants be a TLD registrar with any string not found in google (including with embedding spaces at any appropriate point.)

I still maintain the TM system works the best here, as it has a long and well established legal history we can rely on rather than going out in the fog.

I wrote about it here at circleID, it's also to be found at www.templetons.com/brad/dns/

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs Christopher Ambler  –  Dec 03, 2004 7:50 PM PDT

I have no problem with this approach, provided that it is not mandated that this approach be taken to the exclusion of any other (including generic TLDs). This, simply because there are still those who wish to compete (and have, since 1995) with existing registries, and mandating that there be no more generic TLDs would create an unfair monopoly among existing registries.

I fully support a "let the market decide" approach, and would welcome this plan along-side other, new registries.

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs The Famous Brett Watson  –  Dec 03, 2004 9:03 PM PDT

Brad, while I have your attention, here's a request: please put dates on your essays. It makes them much easier to cite. Also, even now that you've made me aware of your prior work on this matter, I'm unable to find the actual proposal. The key difference between my proposal and your summary here is that I suggest random allocation of TLDs as a solution to the "intrinsic value" problem, where you suggest removing the attractive domains.

Various letter-digit-digit TLDs will have minor attractions relative to others, but the problem can't be generally solved by eliminating the attractive ones, because attractiveness is a culture-specific phenomenon. The Chinese, for example, are going to have a very different opinion about which of the domains are good and which are bad, because they associate meanings with numbers in a way we don't.

The cornucopia is also different from your throw-away suggestion to allow meaningless TLDs (verified as meaningless by lack of Google hits). Once again, this stems from the fact that there is a namespace, and random allocation within the namespace. Cornucopia allows the same generic term to be registered as a second-level domain again and again, and this makes it unique. Ad hoc meaningless TLDs create a few opportunities to register a particular generic term, but cornucopia should be inexhaustible.

As regards trademarks, I have no problem with a portion of the root namespace being allocated to trademark-related name allocations, but I think that basing DNS naming as a whole around trademarks is dreadful. Trademark is both business-oriented and dispute-oriented, whereas cornucopia is egalitarian and aims for peaceful coexistence. Cornucopia therefore seems much more attractive to me, not because I'm a peace-love-and-mung-beans hippie, but because I know I'll be the losing party in any trademark dispute that a typical company-with-legal-department might care to aim at me, purely on the basis of it being not worth my while to mount a defence.

Actually, this point bears a little further emphasis. Most other proposals for meaningful TLDs spend some time talking about the rules relating to who may have what name. One of the main aims of cornucopia is to eliminate that entire stream of argument. The rules for cornucopia are, consequently, extremely simple to both describe and enforce: namely, "take what you want." It's very hard to abusively violate such a permissive rule. Cornucopia registrations have zero overhead in rule-enforcement.

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs Brad Templeton  –  Dec 03, 2004 10:03 PM PDT

Well, I discarded most of those essays.  In fact my first first proposal, long gone, was what I called inserting a disambiguator into requests for the same name.  At the time, my now rejected thought was that you could ask for a domain with or without a disambiguator (effectively random number).  If you asked for one without a disambiguator, you were taking a risk.  If anybody else showed up with a legitimate request for the same term (which is to say, you couldn't get them enjoined from doing that request in trademark court) then you lost your domain, and both people got a domain with a disambiguator.

The goal was not to have people lose domains unless they were idiots.  But to allow people with truly unique names (kodak, xerox, etc.).  Anyway, it wasn't really that workable a system, and also the numeric or random disambiguators turn out to be a bad idea.

They are a bad idea because they give up on some of the most important goals for domain names people have — you want them to be memorable and accurately typable.  Random numbers fail miserably here.

My 2nd stage of this theme — also long ago discarded — was to use the equivalent of street names as disambiguators.  Elm, Pine, etc.  Memorable and typable but not generally meaningful.

Your proposal could easily be modified to this form, though of course internationalization is an interesting issue.  You could have several classes of random disambiguators — including numeric, roman, chinese, arabic and the other major character-set groups.  Numeric is fair and simple but loses the test.  It destroys the village in order to save it.

My second thrust however is to agree in one tiny way with Esther's otherwise really-wrong essay.  The idea of lots of registrars out there all selling the same commodity, unable to compete except on very basic terms like how little they will make on top of the registry fee — that this is not a good regimen.

THere should be competition, competition on all elements.  Policy.  Fame.  Price.  Service.  Things nobody has yet thought to compete about yet.

I believe the answer to that is to find a way to allocate a set of fully owned TLDs, and to make all those TLDs of equal intrinsic value, and let TLD companies claim them and compete any way they can.

Now there are a few ways to make the TLDs start with the same equivalent value.  (Of course, the idea is that after time, some TLDs attain lots of value through the hard work of the TLD company.)

Random numbers is one.  Random strings another.  Random strings with some phonetic memorability and typability another.  Hunting for strings not found in google is good.

But as I said, the trademark business already worked this out long ago.  If you want to own a term in a context, it can't have pre-existing value as a generic term.  It must not mean anything specific.  If it does, it's generic.

However, I am open to any system of allocation that is fair.

What is not fair is what Esther proposes.  Monopoly ownership of English words to the TLD managers.  Aside from the internationalization question, it's just plain wrong.  The idea that I can't say I'm "safe" unless I please the monopoly owner of the word "safe" in the TLD space.  That's crazy.

On the other hand, the idea that I can't declare myself a 3* Michelin guide restaurant without impressing Michelin — that's a great and time tested idea.  You don't give Michelin a monopoly on rating restaurants by having them (or anybody else) own .restaurant (or even by having many registrars put things in .restaurant first-come first served).  You let them publish their guide, and you let them build a famous name for their guide, and you let them and only them decide what qualifies to be in the guide.

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs Christopher Ambler  –  Dec 04, 2004 12:09 AM PDT

That being the case, Brad, how do you propose to remove .NET from the zone? Surely you can't allow one company to run a generic term, yet constrain trade for all other companies that wish to compete on the same terms.

Re: Cornucopia: A Radically Different Approach to TLDs go2ao  –  Dec 08, 2004 2:57 PM PDT

A propos Mr. Brett Watson's Cornucopia approach (see below) to new TLDs, the idea might have had merit were it not for the fact that the political and economic interests of the key players (we all know who they are!) precludes this. Mr.Watson makes the point that generic [names]are "highly coveted" in the dot-com name space. Highly coveted is right. However, Mr. Watson is not correct where he observes that all coveted generic SLD names are taken in the dot-com name space.

The Achilles Heel of the ICANN regulatory apparatus and, indeed, domain name registrars in general,would be the scary situation where a single private entity captured enough generic SLDs in the dot com name space to mimic the name space itself: in other words a "replica" TLD that nonetheless perfectly resolves in the root. A privately-owned replica TLD or ccTLD in any name space means for practical purposes that ICANN is irrelevant.

In fact, and it is a fact, that this has already occurred.The hegemonic apparatus which is ICANN (and its would-be pretenders such as ITU)is a function of the ideological predispositions of the entrenched players referenced above that a name space necessarily is private property. Notwithstanding the holding of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the matter of Sex.com (Kremen v NSI) the dot-com level one name space is a shared information utility open to anyone sufficiently ahead of the curve to capture the required number of generic domains to make doable the concept of a level three dot-com name space within the level two name space itself. This is the dot-com "replica" scenario.

400 or so generic dot-com SLDs is, for practical purposes, a sufficient number of natural language product and service-specific dot-com master channels to replicate the dot-com name space. When that happens, it becomes feasible for any private entity to replicate the dot-com TLD by selling level three names attached to level two names that mirror (generic) consumer products and services, say, "air", "book","car" and so forth across the commercial alphabet.

The hegemonic apparatus which is ICANN (and NSI in particuar) would have us believe that level three name spaces are anathema to the general public. This is (of course) nonsense. ICANN sanctioned the .NAME registry with exactly that purpose in mind: level three name spaces.

There are tens of thousands, maybe millions, of commercial entities around the world that themselves "covet" the dot-com name space, but they are unable to secure relevant names because the dot-com TLD was and is monopolistic by design.

However, technology (as we all know) challenges that assumption. It is perfectly reasonable, and doable, to assign a relevant and proprietary, (meaning selected by the registrant), domain name in the dot-com name space to anyone who wants one. Anyone means anyone. All that is required are the master generic channels in the form of <myname.masterchannel.com> to achieve that purpose. This, as I said, has already occurred. Such a dot-com replica already exists and perfectly resolves in the DNS.

Any business or private entity can obtain any proprietary dot-com address they wish, for example,<verisign.masterchannel.com> without offending copyright or trademark regulations. This network ...and clarity is important here...in most cases makes it(thereby)feasible for anyone, anywhere to obtain any dot-com address they wish. The word "relevance" means an appropriate (personal/private) level three domain name in a relevant product or service specific level two dot-com master channel, by simply requesting it - and paying for it.

Almost...emphasis on almost...every commercial product or service category required by everyday businesses has already been assigned a generic level-two generic address in the dot-com name space. The process began in 1999. The replica dot-com network sits silent and unused to this day.
++++++++++++++++
Brett Watson
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"So why would anyone want a meaningless TLD? The first and foremost reason: generics! Generic terms are highly coveted in ".com" space, and it's safe to say that they are all taken. In fact, they're probably all taken in all the available TLDs that allow registration of generic terms. The cornucopia allows everyone to register their favourite generic term, since there is plenty for all. The meaningfulness of the second-level name can make up for the meaningless TLD to some degree."

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