Virtual Consumer Jul-Aug 2010

Joining the dots

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Jul-Aug 2010

The proposed new internet domain '.eco' is a new attempt to create a domain name ending associated with ethical values and business. ICANN, the body that regulates names on the internet, has not yet approved '.eco', but the founders are hopeful that it will be soon.

A domain name is an internet address like 'google.com'; the bit following the final dot is the 'top level domain' or TLD – examples are '.com', '.org' and '.uk'. ICANN has previously experimented with new TLDs aimed at particular uses or communities. The first group was approved in 2000 at the end of the dot com boom when many hundreds of new ‘.com’ domains were being registered every day, and a lot of money was being made. Some 50 companies bid to create new TLDs, mostly hoping to cash in on the boom, although Poptel - the cooperative I co-founded - bid to create  '.union' for trade unions and '.coop' for cooperatives. Following an exhaustive selection process just seven new names were approved, among them (much to our astonishment) was '.coop'. It’s now used by The Cooperative in the UK along with a few thousand other cooperatives here and around the world. Hopefully you will have seen it. You'll probably also have seen '.info' and '.biz', but the rest ('.name', '.aero', '.pro' and '.museum') are fairly rare. The people who thought they were going to make a great deal of money were all disappointed.

The aim of '.coop' was to mark cooperatives out from other organisations and create a zone of trust on the net – where members' and customers' needs come first rather than shareholder value.

I assumed at first that '.eco' would be built on similar principles, that if you bought something you could be confident that it would meet minimum environmental standards.

The .eco founders however make it clear that they do not want to create barriers to the success of the name. Instead, domain name users are simply required to say they agree with the founding principles. The reason the project is getting high level backing from people like The Sierra club and Al Gore is because the founders confidently predict that they will be paying 'millions of dollars' to environmental causes. Dot Eco is promoting the fact that its leading founder – Fred Krueger – is a 'serial entrepreneur' who starts Internet ventures and then sells them.

I think there are big problems with this. First, many – like me – will be misled into believing that '.eco' guarantees certain environmental standards, that you would be able to buy from a '.eco' site confident that you're making an ethical choice. Second, the benefit to the ecological movement depends on making lots of money. Experience of new TLDs says this is unlikely and there will be pressure to sell names to anyone, no matter how ecological their behaviour. Third the track record of the founders is in creating venture capital-driven businesses and selling them for a profit: arguably incompatible with a sustainable ecological business ethic.

So my prediction is that this venture will fail – either financially or ethically, and probably both. You read it here first.