The largest-ever expansion of the Internet’s naming system, beyond trusty old .com and .org, is almost here: Hundreds of dot-anything websites are slated to roll out this year, starting as early as this summer.
The list of proposed new domains includes .google, .apple, .nyc and .book. It’s the first major expansion in more than a decade, and it’s a complicated process — one that has suffered through both technical delays and critics’ concerns.
The nonprofit group Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) formally approved the expansion of “generic top-level domains” (gTLDs) back in June 2011. One year later, ICANN unveiled 1,930 proposals for new domain names.
Those applications weren’t cheap: ICANN charges $185,000 per proposal, fees that the group says are necessary to cover extensive reviews on each proposal. The technical setup and upkeep on a single domain will cost a company additional thousands, or in some cases, even millions of dollars, annually.
It’s an expensive change for everyone involved, and opinion is split. Supporters of the move agree that the .coms and .nets of the world have become saturated, and expansion could make it easier to score a “good” website address. They also say dot-brand sites will help companies to market themselves and to protect customers from spammy sites. For example, Barclays could warn that a purported online banking site isn’t legitimate unless it ends in .barclays.
The suffixes will also be more inclusive of global Internet users, with non-English alphabets like Russian and Arabic now allowed.
Critics counter that expanding domain names will be confusing for consumers. And opponents including the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) argue ICANN hasn’t adequately addressed all cybersecurity concerns.
ANA president Dan Jaffe said “the worst possible scenario” would be for someone to pretend to be a well-known company by starting a new site with a trusted brand name in the domain.
“The Internet marketplace is dependent on trust and faith, and it could all be eroded,” Jaffe said.
ICANN spokesman Brad White countered that the group has spent months soliciting opinions — both from experts and the public — on everything from security to trademark concerns. Plus, he says, the rigorous application process essentially works as a “background check.”
“You can’t just walk in and get one of these domains,” White said. “We created this new space in the context of what’s already out there — so we looked at cybersquatting issues, we looked at security problems, and we tried to make a new field that’s better.”
That current field includes just 21 gTLDs, not including “country codes” like .ca or .uk.
An expensive and long process: ICANN is in the “initial evaluation” stage of reviewing applications for new domains. Right now, 514 have passed that evaluation. After some technical tests and contract discussions, the complex process will come to an end and brands can begin launching the names.
The 1,930 applications include proposals from automakers Chrysler and Volkswagen, banks JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Barclays (BCS), and tech giants Netflix (NFLX), Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500), Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), and AOL (AOL). (CNNMoney parent company Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500) filed an application for .HBO.)
Google applied for 101 domains, while Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500) submitted applications for 76. The two overlapped on 20 generic-word applications, most notably .book, .buy, .free, .game, .mail, .map, and .music.
Overall, ICANN said there were 230 proposed new names for which at least two applicants applied. Among them were .app, .baseball, .blog, .money, .pizza, and .web. The names .home and .inc received the most applications at 13 each.
ICANN has set up protections for trademarked names. Applicants deemed equally worthy for a specific domain must negotiate between themselves, and if no agreement can be reached the name goes to auction.
So some contested suffixes will likely take much longer to roll out, drawing out a long process even further. Some critics ask simply: Why bother? Why change the Internet so drastically, especially when it’s so expensive and complicated? But ICANN’s White scoffs at that.
“The frustrating thing about that question is that it implicitly says need predates innovation,” White said. “I don’t think there were people running around saying, ‘I need a site that lets me write only 140 characters!’ But Twitter introduced the innovation, and people loved it. All we’re doing is offering something new.”