Domains of influence

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Sep-Oct 2011

The recent decision to free up the creation of new Internet ‘top level domains’ (TLDs) – the final bit of a web or email address, like .com or .org – has attracted considerable media attention. The regulating body ICANN has said that in the future anyone can apply to create a new TLD providing they have the right to use the proposed name, and providing they pay $185,000. Currently just 22 generic and sponsored TLDs are approved by ICANN - not counting the 250 or so ‘country code’ top level domains like .uk.

Domains are big business. The ‘.com’ boom around the turn of the century led to a rash of speculation on names - especially in the. com ‘namespace’. The new arrangements could spark another ‘land rush’ with wealthier organisations buying their own endings - such as .tesco.

This is all a far cry from the early days of the Internet when the TLD was seen as a way of identifying the type of organisation using it. There’s still some remnant of that to this day: non-commercial organisations tend to rather than .com, which originally meant ‘commercial’.

This notion – that the TLD said something about the organisation using it – was taken further with the approval of seven new names in 2000, They included .coop, proposed by international cooperative bodies and Poptel, a worker co-op ISP in the UK. Poptel also (unsuccessfully) proposed creating ‘.union’. Like .coop, .union would have said something about the values of the registering organisation as well as its type.

An ‘ethical’ rationale was put forward by the sponsors of .xxx – only reluctantly approved by ICANN earlier this year. They argued that by clearly labelling and signposting porn sites it becomes easier to prevent access by children and to differentiate between legal and illegal material. This is analogous to the argument for regulated prostitution and decriminalisation of drugs: that since the industry has always existed and always will, it is better to know where it is and keep an eye on it. The counter argument is that porn will continue to exist on other TLDs and .xxx is more about money than ethics.

Arguably the refinement of search algorithms and the spread of social media make domain names less important. The danger with the new ‘open season’ is that it could be another opportunity for some people to make a lot of money without making it any easier for users to find what they want on the net.