By Shea Bennett
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
Thursday’s landmark ruling by ICANN, the organisation that regulates the domain name registration system, is set to shake up the way everybody uses the Internet. Scratch beneath the surface, and one wonders if the groundwork is being laid for a new categorisation system for websites – if so, how will these new categories be enforced, by whom, and are the only real winners here the domain registrars themselves?
ICANN passed a unanimous vote to relax the rules that currently limit the top-level domains (TLD) of web addresses – that’s .com, .net, .biz, and so on. The new ruling means that, technically, anyone will be able to register almost anything as their TLD (within a 64 character limit). The proposal will also have to become law, and if so, could come into effect as early as 2009.
“This was an extremely successful meeting that will be remembered as a milestone in the development of the internet,” said ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush.
For example, Microsoft might decide to register .microsoft. The Los Angeles Lakers might like the idea of .lalakers, and Google have probably already figured out a way to put .google on the map.
It’s not just limited to organisations, either – John Smith might like the idea of .smith or, if he was just a tad too slow, .johnsmith. Or possibly all John Smith’s will be required to use that TLD.
All of these things would replace .com, and the way you think about website URLs would become a little bit backward – the TLD will become more important than the name of the website itself, certainly in the way we look at a URL to determine content.
Essentially, we’ve done away with the need for www, and now we’re doing away with the need for com – we can’t be too far away from the use of common English in URLs. Or, indeed, any other language – one bonus of this new system is that it will recognise non-English characters (for example, Chinese or Arabic).
It’s not all upside, though – and let’s face it, there doesn’t appear to be too much of that. More than a few concerns have been raised.
As it is now, the top-level domain system is pretty simple. For most organisations, .com, .net and a few major countries is all they really need to cover themselves.
With this new ruling, however, there’s a chance they may have to register hundreds or even thousands of URLs to be truly safe. I mean, microsoft is all well and good, but how many people might enter .windows, .vista or .office into their browsers instead? These will all become TLDs, remember, and their market value will suddenly boom accordingly.
Which means, of course, that we’re going to experience a potentially nostalgic phase of millions of domain names being registered by people who don’t have any right to actually use them. It’s gonna get ugly. And it’s going to get expensive – the registrars, and corporate lawyers, are going to make out like bandits. We’re talking hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars here, as every current domain name will need to be re-registered to become a TLD. And all the sub-domains, too. And pretty much anything else you can think of.
Or perhaps this new system won’t be quite this casual. There’s potential here to re-classify the web – to categorise it.
On June 1, 2005, ICANN announced that .xxx would become a top-level domain, and other TLDs, such as .aero and .travel would also be available. The idea was never implemented, and on March 10, 2006, ICANN reversed its decision. The .xxx proposal was rejected again in March 2007. Even if the TLD was a dream for parents and employers – instead of endlessly updating content filters, you just block .xxx, and all of your problems are solved – ICANN didn’t like the idea that they’d have to operate as some kind of regulator. “What is pornography?” is a harder question to answer than you might initially suspect, certainly when it comes to keeping everybody happy.
The reality is, most porn websites don’t like the idea of .xxx, specifically because it brands them, which as we’ve seen makes them a lot easier to eliminate – what’s to stop an ISP blocking .xxx? Plus, of course, a lot of their business comes from ‘accidental’ browsing. That’s where your husband tells you he was actually looking at something on Wikipedia and then he clicked on a link and was suddenly, and to his horror, on a porn site. The days of those feeble excuses will soon be history – a quick glance down at the status bar will soon confirm exactly what kind of site you’re about to visit.
Or will it? While the idea of categorisation does have some potential, it’s only going to work if you have to do it. If it’s optional, most organisations won’t bother. The porn industry almost certainly won’t. But if they have to – if it can in any way be enforced – why should it be limited to porn? Will all booksellers be made to use .books? Technology sites will have to be part of .tech? And will blogs be forced to use .blog? What about sites that cover all of these subjects?
And what happens if you refuse?
All of this pushes the web even closer to the ‘real’ world – you don’t, for example, accidentally pick up Playboy at a newsstand. It’s a purposeful move on your part. A categorised TLD web would be exactly like this, simply because the top-level domain would become more informative than the name of the company. The content of a URL like geekstuff.books is communicated to the user as quickly as amazon.books, or any other site that ends in that TLD.
Likewise, if you click on a .xxx link, and certainly if you type one in, you have no alibi. No excuse.
You knew exactly what you were doing. And so do ICANN.