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The gTLD Boondoggle

John Levine

I've been watching at the excitement build in the domain community, where a lot of people seem to believe that at next month's Singapore meeting, by golly, this time ICANN will really truly open the floodgates and start adding lots of new Top-Level Domains (TLDs).

I have my doubts, because there's still significant issues with the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and the US Government and ICANN hasn't yet grasped the fact that governments do not defer to NGOs, but let's back up a little and ask is this a good idea.

I see four arguments in favor of new TLDs:

  • More competition
  • More Innovation!
  • ICANN promised they would in 1998
  • Lots of money

Elliot Noss made most of these points (except about the money) in a CircleID post last week. We can dispose of the money issue easily enough: Yes, if there are new TLDs someone may make lots of money selling domains. I have no objection to that, being a Tucows shareholder, but it would be nice if the money making were more or less aligned with the public interest. So let's look at the other three.


The three legacy domains .COM .ORG and .NET have been a defacto monopoly since before ICANN existed. Spinning off .ORG to PIR and Afilias made it a duopoly, and we can argue whether .INFO and .BIZ are large enough to matter. None of the other new TLDs have made even a teensy dent in the enormous dominance of Verisign's domains.

On the other hand, splitting the registrars from the registrants made a huge difference, and now we have a robustly competitive market in registrations for the large gTLDs, and for a lot of ccTLDs, too. Although I am not a huge fan of Verisign, they are technically very competent, and don't see any reason to believe that any new TLD will entice people away from .COM. Also, although the price of a .COM domain is probably about twice what it would be in a more competitive market, it's still low enough that it's insignificant to anyone who wants one to use as an identifier, as opposed to hoarding or speculation.

So I find arguments about increased competition unpersuasive.


The next argument is that with more TLDs we will have Innovation! which will be wonderful. This is wrong for two reasons.

Waving my hands a little, there are two general kinds of innovation that might be associated with TLDs, technical and what we might call marketing. The DNS is a multi-level tree, designed so that there is nothing whatsoever technically special about the second level where TLDs sell domains. There's all sorts of DNS experiments going on all the time, but none of them are at the second level, for fairly obvious reasons of cost and bureaucratic difficulty, and since technically they work just as well a level or two down where domains are free.

So maybe it will be marketing Innovation! If we look at the domains added in the past decade, I would say that .COOP and .CAT are somewhat successful experiments, and .MUSEUM is an interesting but failed one. The .CAT domain seems well-accepted in Catalonia, even though with about 46,000 domains it is far smaller than .CH and .HK, which cover countries with about the same population. The .COOP domain has only 9000 entries, representing a tiny fraction of the millions of co-ops in the world, but the co-ops that use it seem to like it. The .MUSEUM domain was an attempt to use a TLD as a directory, giving each registrant a variety of descriptive names, and adding a lot of stub names pointing to placeholder pages with links to registrants, e.g. science.museum has links to all the science museums. There are about 3200 names in .MUSEUM, representing less than 1000 registrants. By any numerical standard it's a failure, but it's been an interesting little experiment.

There's about 250,000 domains each in .NAME and .TEL, two other domains with slightly different registration practices. (The former is supposed to handle names of actual people, the latter to be an online directory.) I know maybe two people with a .NAME domain and nobody who uses .TEL, particularly as the latter has largely abandoned their original technical DNS orientation and now promotes itself as an online web directory, so I'd rate them as experiments of doubtful success, too.

Unfortunately, since it will cost upwards of half a million dollars to get a new TLD (the $185K application fee, and the cost of lobbying ICANN to get it approved, on top of what it actually costs to run) nobody can afford to do interesting little experiments since they'll need to get tens of thousands of registrations just to cover their costs. This rules out anything seriously innovative, since the risk is just too high. All of the proposed TLDs I've seen are for industries (.MUSIC), places (.NYC), or brands (.APPLE or whatever.) What's innovative about any of those?

Also, to point out the obvious, when I think of Innovation! in the domain business, I think of domain speculators, domain tasting, TLD wildcards, free proxy registrations for spammers and crooks, and .XXX. As in the banking industry, the current system works OK, and most changes make it worse. Speaking of the banking industry, one of the few plausible Innovation!s is a .BANK which ensures that its registrants are real banks. Toward that end ICANN had a High Security TLD group which was hijacked by marketers who discarded anything actually related to high security in favor of a laundry list of trivial security features that they could use for upsells, then were unable to find anyone willing to administer it. So, no, I don't believe that new TLDs will provide Innovation! either.

ICANN history

ICANN promised back in 1998 that they would bring the world lots of new domains. So far they haven't, the world has not come to an end, and the Internet has not collapsed. The absence of demand for new TLDs from actual users (as opposed to domain promoters and the occasional astroturf) is deafening. What we do see is a lot of concern that there will be more mistakes like .XXX, and pressure from governments both via the GAC and directly to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Back in 1998, before we all knew that people would find material online using search engines rather than domains, the idea of lots of little .MUSEUM style domains to organize parts of the net sort of seemed plausible. It doesn't any more. Countries that write their names using other than the Roman alphabet wanted TLDs their citizens can read, which the IDN fast track now provides. This doesn't give us the Chinese version of .COM, but I see little reason to think that the users (as opposed to domain salesmen) would prefer it to the Chinese version of .COM.CN which they do have. This leaves us with, "Ma, they promised!" which is about the stupidest reason imaginable to do something.

So what's left to justify thousands of new TLDs? Not much. Unfortunately, ICANN is so hypnotized by the endless millions of dollars they expect to make, and so overrun with people with a financial interest in new TLDs that the public interest (the one that a 501(c)(3) non-profit is supposed to be about) has no chance.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker. More blog posts from John Levine can also be read here.

Related topics: DNS, Domain Names, Registry Services, ICANN, Internet Governance, Top-Level Domains

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Why the world needs .com in non-Latin scripts Avtal Meren  –  May 29, 2011 8:38 PM PST


Like you, I am not a big fan of the new gTLDs.  But unlike you, I do see a need for .com, .net, and .org in non-Latin scripts, that is, for IDN versions of .com and those others.

Two reasons:

1) A fundamental difference between .com in Chinese and .com.cn in Chinese is that one of these TLDs is under the control of the Chinese government, and the other isn't.  I think users, and not just domain speculators, will appreciate the difference.

2) Some scripts/languages are not limited to a single nation.  Arabic is a prime example, being the official language of more than two dozen countries.  If someone wants to sell books to speakers of Arabic, they would probably rather register the Arabic equivalent of books.com than register the Arabic versions of books.egypt, books.jordan, books.syria, and 22 others.

So I would urge you to reconsider the need for IDN versions of .com, .net, and .org.


No, it doesn't John Levine  –  May 29, 2011 8:58 PM PST

Like I said, I see no user demand for non-ASCII gTLDs. Other than in the US, most businesses use their ccTLD, even in countries that speak English and French, where .COM is a reasonable option. In the UK it's .co.uk, in Australia, it's .com.au. in South Africa it's .co.za, in NZ it's .co.nz, in Canada it's .ca, in France, Belgium, and Switzerland it's .fr, .be, .and .ch. The lack of use of .US is because all the registrations had to be clunky name.city.st.us, not because of the inherent wonderfulness of .com.

Why do you think that Arabic speaking countries would be any different? And even if there were a Chinese .COM, why do you imagine that the Chinese government would allow their users to access it if it weren't aligned with their interests?

One last try Avtal Meren  –  May 29, 2011 10:14 PM PST


I'm not in a position to say which TLDs most businesses use worldwide.  I do notice a nice chart currently on the home page of circleid.com, which appears to show that there are more .com domains registered than all ccTLDs combined.  I doubt that this is purely due to US demand.  In any case, it suggests that your claim may need some documentation (or that I need to do more research).

I'm a bit baffled by your argument on Chinese .com versus .com.cn, since it is so easily countered.  Of course, as you pointed out, China can block any domains it wants, no matter the TLD.  But it can confiscate Chinese .com.cn domains, shutting them down completely, whereas Chinese .com domains will continue to be available to Chinese speakers outside of the People's Republic.

Anyway, I feel that ICANN made a mistake in treating IDN .com (and .net and .org) as being no more urgently needed than .music, .nyc, or .apple.  I am sorry to see you make the same mistake, but I won't belabor the point any further.


High Security Domains Phillip Hallam-Baker  –  May 30, 2011 9:41 AM PST

A practical starting point for high security domains would be to use the EV validation practices as a basis. There is an existing competitive market for EV validation services.

The most vocal criticism leveled at the criteria to date has been that they are too strict with some of the weaker CAs trying to derail the process with complaints from sole traders whining that they can't get a $400 SSL certificate without first spending $200 or so to incorporate as a business.

That could be a starting point from which other criteria could be added.

I agree -- designing a process to John Levine  –  May 30, 2011 9:53 AM PST

I agree — designing a process to verify the identity of a business isn't rocket science.  Too bad the HSTLD crowd went for the cheap gimmick instead.

A+ for determination Kieren McCarthy  –  May 31, 2011 11:36 AM PST

John - you have analyzed each step, for years, from the perspective of "now what about this shows that gTLDs will be a failure?"

The problem is that as more and more people have looked at the rules, and it grows closer to reality, this critical thinking starts to look like determined obstinacy.

The Guidebook may have been a bit of a dog's breakfast early on but it is increasingly looking like a solid expansion of the Internet's namespace. You should let it go, stop find reasons to stick with a pre-ordained negative assessment and start applying critical thought to the issues that will arrive with the coming reality.

The really, really easy argument against what I would say is a short-term perspective over new TLDs is this: with a global naming network and Internet use becoming almost invisibly meshed into our lives, why would the dot-com dominance remain in place?

It is simply inevitable that as the top-level namespace opens out, people and companies and events and interactions will spread out across it. We don't know how, or how long it will take, or whether people will move wholesale, or simply spread themselves across many different spaces, but it will happen.

Complaining that you're not happy with the arguments put forward to get to that inevitability is a bit like claiming your feet can't be wet because the radio said high-tide wasn't due for another 15 minutes.

You should let it go, stop John Levine  –  May 31, 2011 12:00 PM PST

You should let it go, stop find reasons to stick with a pre-ordained negative assessment and start applying critical thought to the issues that will arrive with the coming reality.

You're quite right. It's clear that there is no hope for ICANN to act in the public interest, so the only plausible approach is for the US DOC to tell them to stop.

PS: John Levine  –  May 31, 2011 12:04 PM PST

The really, really easy argument against what I would say is a short-term perspective over new TLDs is this: with a global naming network and Internet use becoming almost invisibly meshed into our lives, why would the dot-com dominance remain in place?

A better question would be why, since every effort for the past decade to persuade people to switch away from .COM has been a complete failure, anyone would expect that more of the same would have a different result. As I think I said fairly clearly, although I am not a big fan of Verisign's, there is zero technical risk to staying with .COM, and the benefits of switching to anyone who wants to use a 2LD as an identifier are insignificant.

So what's left to justify thousands of Paul Tattersfield  –  Jun 01, 2011 5:47 AM PST

So what's left to justify thousands of new TLDs? Not much. Unfortunately, ICANN is so hypnotized by the endless millions of dollars they expect to make, and so overrun with people with a financial interest in new TLDs that the public interest (the one that a 501(c)(3) non-profit is supposed to be about) has no chance.


The situation is already surreal and this, even before the Boards approval

25 May 2011 – Sydney Morning Herald: Sydney, Australia and Sydney, Nova Scotia don’t butt heads too often but upcoming changes to the internet domain name system could force the cities into mediation.

Just to get things in perspective that’s Sydney, Nova Scotia with a population of c.24,000 and without its own local municipality having merged into the regional municipality of Cape Breton.

Though to be fair to the article it does mention one of the attractions of Sydney is the largest fiddle in the world.

Sydney John Levine  –  Jun 01, 2011 5:57 AM PST

Having been to both Sydney NSW and Sydney NS, I can tell you that only one of them has the Marconi National Historic Site, where the first long distance data transmission happened, and it ain't the one in oz. The precedent to a vanity TLD should be obvious, if you think like a domainer.  All you've got is that funny looking opera house.

But look at the bright side — they're keeping you from wasting half a million dollars.

.name, .info Daniel R. Tobias  –  Jun 07, 2011 5:00 PM PST

I use .name and .info domains for my personal sites, since I think they're more logical than .com, .org, and .net since the sites aren't commercial, organizational, or network providers.

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