Politics

Unsanctioned Webs

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Critics have long charged the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the authority that assigns domain names, with artificially choking off the number of possible Web addresses. It's nice to have a site called reason.com, they suggest, but why not a reason.magazine, or a reason.foundation, or even (for our foes) a reason.sucks? Late last year, ICANN recommended that seven new top-level domains be adopted, including .aero for air transit sites and .coop for cooperatives. But why stop at seven? There's no good reason not to have 50 or 100 new domains: Surfing would be easier, with shorter addresses to remember; cybersquatting would be less of a problem, since it would be harder to buy up all the possible permutations of a person's or company's name; and domains themselves would be cheaper.

While ICANN dithers, some rival registries have been assigning new addresses of their own. The best-known are Image Online Design and Name.Space, both of which have been around for years. The former lets you register sites with the suffix .web. The latter has opened up hundreds of options, from .art to .zine. These exist outside the root server run by Network Solutions, the company with a monopoly on ICANN-approved addresses, so you have to reconfigure your computer to reach them. It's unclear how many pages exist only in these alternative online universes, and how many are merely staking their claims now, in hopes that ICANN will adopt more top-level domain names and let these alternative registries control the domains they pioneered.

Good luck. Before announcing the latest assortment of top-level domains, ICANN required organizations applying to run new dot-somethings to pay a hefty $50,000 fee just to be considered. "It was a clever move by the ICANN people," argues Milton Mueller, an associate professor of information studies at Syracuse. It raised a lot of money, and it pleased trademark-holders, many of whom were afraid their intellectual property would lose value in a world of domain-name plenty.

"They probably thought they'd get something like 12 applications, and the process of narrowing it down to seven would be easy," Mueller adds. Instead, more than 40 groups applied.

Both Image Online Design and Name.Space were among the hopefuls, but neither group's application was accepted. "They definitely got a raw deal," says Mueller. "They were operational registries. They played by ICANN's rules. The reason they didn't get an award is politics—pure politics."

Christopher Ambler, president of Image Online Design, won't put it so strongly, but he's clearly disappointed. "ICANN's decision was based on clearly incorrect information," he says. "We paid $50,000 for a thorough, objective analysis, and we received neither." Ambler's company has appealed ICANN's decision, as have several other disappointed applicants. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sent a letter to the Department of Commerce in January, asking it to hold a public hearing before adopting ICANN's selections.

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