Source: Monday, June 20th, 2011

ICANN Approves Custom Generic Top Level Domains

The era of .google, .microsoft and .apple is coming as ICANN decides to let organizations apply for custom domain suffixes.

The organization that governs Website domain suffixes has voted to allow new top-level domains that can be whatever the domain owner wants—for a price.

The custom suffixes will allow domain names to end with almost any word and in any language, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) said June 20 following a vote in Singapore. ICANN will accept applications between Jan. 12 and April 12, 2012, with corporations and cities expected to be among the first in line.

There are currently 22 generic top-level domain names (gTLD), including the most commonly used .com, .net and .org, along with about 250 country-level domain names, such as .uk and .ca. The new change will allow companies to end the domain addresses with their brand names, such as .google or .coke.

"ICANN has opened the Internet's naming system to unleash the global human imagination," said Rod Beckstrom, president and chief executive officer for ICANN.

There is no limit to the number of suffixes that can be created, but the process for applying for one is both expensive and complex. It will cost $185,000 to apply for a custom suffix and applicants would need to show they have a legitimate claim to the name they are buying. ICANN will keep the application fee even if the application is rejected, the non-profit group said. It will also cost about $25,000 a year to run the registry after it's approved.

The application fee will cover costs incurred by ICANN to develop the new gTLDs, to hire experts who will handle the applications and to fund potential legal actions from applicants who don't get the domains they want. The price is also set to be high enough to deter most cyber-squatters from grabbing names and will cover the cost of review to ensure applicants are not violating trademark rights, ICANN said.

The application process will perform a background check of applicants to examine business history and for any signs of past cyber-squatting. There will also be string similarity reviews to determine if the domain is like anything else on the Internet and assess potential security risks, ICANN said in its Applicant Guidebook. The process is expected to take about nine months.

"Many of the biggest brands are planning to apply for their .brand TLD, but many marketing leaders I've talked with look at this as a nuisance and are skeptical about whether Internet users will embrace them," Jeff Ernst, a Forrester analyst, wrote in a blog post.

The new policy is an opportunity for brand protection and innovation for brands and businesses in the online realm, Ben Crawford, CEO of United Kingdom-based CentralNIC and co-founder of dotBrand Solutions, told eWEEK. "The risks and costs associated with not acquiring a "dot brand" gTLD are numerous," he said, noting that companies who move too slowly to register their custom suffixes risk being locked out if a "confusingly similar" word is already registered.

For example, if someone gets .apples, Apple will not be able to apply for .apple, according to Crawford.

"Dot brand" domain names will make Web addresses more intuitive for consumers and search engines, Crawford said, noting that the focus on trademark protection will create a "brand-safe environment."

Besktrom said the decision respects the rights of groups to create new TLDs in any language or script, and would allow the domain name system to "better service all of mankind."

Some activists said the decision does not address issues such as blocking, censorship and restrictions on free speech. In fact, it "may actually exacerbate blocking and censorship," wrote technology activist Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility. The "ethically vacuous nature of this entire plan" will have a negative impact on Internet users with the possibility of increased cybersquatting, spammers and phishing, Weinstein said. She also claimed that the changes would benefit only the big companies and major brand names.

ICANN said it will set aside $2 million to assist applications from developing countries.

The ICANN vote comes after almost six years of negotiation among its members. The custom suffixes mark the biggest change to the domain system in the past 26 years.

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