What the Biggest Internet Land Grab Ever .Means

h5. ^"Unleashing the global human imagination": Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of ICANN^. Today, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization in charge of maintaining the Internet's address system, "opened the...

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Jun 13 2012, 4:30pm
Above: “Unleashing the global human imagination”: Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of ICANN.

Today, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization in charge of maintaining the Internet’s address system, opened the floodgates to a giant new stable of Internet addresses.

You see, for over a decade, we’ve been stuck with a rather measly assortment of generic top level domains (gTDLs). The selection was conservative enough that PETA was able to make headlines by wresting the .XXX domain out of the limited morass, joining .org, .com, .info, .tv, .net, and the other pretty boring suffixes. But now all that has changed. With 1900 new domain name “strings” to be snapped up and billions of dollars at stake, ICANN has unleashed the biggest land grab in internet history.

Google snagged .Google, .Android, and .YouTube, and is hoping to grab .lol, but GoDaddy wants it too. Governments and companies are vying to buy up their namesakes (Canon has pledged to drop the .com for the .canon later this year). Apple might swap its boring .com site to .Apple, NYC.gov to .NYC. The applications have been revealed, and now ICANN has to sift through and decide who will actually get the rights to own – and effectively rent out – these new words.

From another land rush

ICANN has opened the Internet’s naming system to unleash the global human imagination,” Rod Beckstrom, the former president and CEO of ICANN, said when the plan was announced last year. “We hope this allows the domain name system to better serve all of mankind.”

Indeed, there’s gold in them there gTDLs, which is probably why companies—most of them American—have sunk $350 million into applying for new domains. Each application was $185,000, and each gTDL will cost something like $25,000 a year to maintain. (The money goes to maintaining the “domains and services,” says ICANN, which is a non-profit corporation.) Companies seeking to protect their brands bought up new domains to do so, the more tourism-hungry municipalities and nations bought their namesakes. The new gTDLs represent a money-making opportunity themselves, as venture capital firms are betting that a number of the new domains will be attractive to conglomerates and casual users alike. One company hoping to be a go-to registry for these new names, Donuts.co, has made $100 million worth of bets attempting to secure 307 new domains (it can’t hurt that Donuts’ new CFO, Kevin Wilson, is the former CFO of ICANN).

So what’s all the hubbub over? What are these new gTDLs that have everyone scrambling for a piece of Internet pie? There are lots of companies and locations, like .Mitsubishi, .Dubai, and .Persiangulf. And there are plenty of generic catchall terms, too—and this is where companies are butting heads. Often at least three or four different applicants are fighting over domains like .Art, .Restaurant, .Review, .Music, .Pizza, .Gay, .Store, .Shop, or .Eco. And .LTD and .LLC each have at least a half dozen proposals.

You’ll soon be browsing sites that end in:

.Sucks
.RIP
.Indians
.Goodhands
.Porn
.Republicans
.Orientexpress
.Transformers
.vermögensberater
.Yachts
.Wang

Feast thine eyes on the sprawling list of new domains here.

But it seems to me that by and large, the relevance of this development has been blown out of proportion, and will by and large be a positive, somewhat flattening force on the internet. After all, the dominance of .com domains is beyond arbitrary, though the status quo will likely continue to reign in the wake of the gTDL deluge. It’s always been kind of a screwy function of the internet that digital property worked much like landed property—if you were able to snag Sex.com, it’d be like buying a plot of land you already knew sat atop an oil field. No prospecting necessary, just twitchy fingers. Check the creativity, the thoughtful enterprising; anyone with some capital could buy up domains with high-traffic potential—and that’s exactly what they did.

The Oklahoma domain rush of 1899

Hopefully, the sheer abundance of options will give us a bit more flexibility in our quests for the perfect domain for our startups, blogs, and personal websites, and will make alternatives to .com (.tv anyone?) seem more trustworthy. For a long time the only alternatives to .com were bargain bin options like .infos and .nets, to say nothing of the .gs’s and the .ly’s and the latest trend, the .co’s. Like, there’s no good reason I shelled out $140 to buy the domain Utopianist.com, rather than Utopianist.biz or even, I guess, Utopiani.st, except that it seemed ‘correct’ to do so, the most respectable choice.

But for the purposes of people finding each other online, SEO, etc., it probably didn’t matter much: everybody’s Googling or bookmarking or clicking thru on Facebook anyway, and the gTDL itself probably didn’t make a shred of difference. It just made me feel better.

ICANN’s move could hurt those companies sitting on prohibitively priced domains (like who the hell else where those guys going to sell Utopianist.com to?) but that’s good news; that artificial scarcity isn’t helping anything. As for all the investment, it’s hard to see how this could possibly be profitable enough to warrant $100 million+ investment. There’s simply so much supply now, and fewer companies and individuals competing for more property. Then again, what the hell do I know. Maybe gallerists worldwide will insist on having their domains updated to .art, and publishers will turn to .book for all the ebooks of the future – that’s quite possible. At least some of these will probably be cash cows. (In March, the White House approved only part of a crucial agreement with ICANN over concerns about insufficient prevention of conflicts of interest within the organization.)

Before ICANN, the Internet was administered by the U.S. government; in the early 2000s, rumors swirled that the United Nations would attempt to take over ICANN’s responsibilities. Now, the Internet is a complicated series not just of tubes but of corporations and murky regulations that govern how the web works. And it just got a bit more interesting, in the name of democratizing and loosening one of its starkest hegemonies. The result may be a gold rush-style land grab, but it’s one that – hopefully – will benefit all us renters out there, too.

Now, just how much am I going to have to pay for .merchant?

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