Beginning Wednesday, Jan. 12 — midnight UTC, to be exact — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) starts accepting applications for new, bespoke top level domains (TLDs). This will be the first time website owners (at least governments and businesses) will be able to request their own replacement for .com, .net and .org. Think .facebook, .losangeles and .lolcats.
Approved in June after six years in the making, and still rife with controversy and complaints, the launch will be a big test of ICANN’s ability to manage what amounts to the decentralization of the domain name registry game. Names on the net have been big money, thanks in part to the limited supply — there are only 20 TLDs now, plus two-letter country extensions over which ICANN has little control.
But keeping a tight rein has largely kept ICANN from having to deal with the inevitable Solomonic decisions about what is appropriate in a website name (with the one big public exception being .XXX, which ICANN approved, disapproved and then re-approved reluctantly).
Think policing vanity license plates or Facebook custom URLs, but on a global scale with much higher stakes.
That’s why just applying costs $185,000; you have to manage it yourself, and getting approved will require jumping through a bunch of hoops.
The initial list of applicants won’t be made public until sometime in May, but look for some of the biggest names in commerce, disenfranchised countries and some major players in the internet proxy game (like, oh, say, Facebook, Google and Twitter) to be on that list.
As part of the rollout ICANN president Rod Beckstrom spoke to Wired. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Wired: Give some context of the scale and scope of this initiative. Just how big a deal is this?
Rod Beckstrom: This is the biggest change in the Domain Name System since dot-com, certainly — maybe the biggest change since the re-architecting of the whole domain naming system in ’83-’84, which is when dot com came about. To give you an idea of the scale of activity: There have been over 2,000 public comments submitted on this program since 2008. The summary analysis of the proposals and thoughts of different participants globally spans 1,400 pages. We’ve gone through 45 different public comment processes. We’ve just done a road show in 36 countries. So, yeah, this is a significant shift in the domain name system. It’s with a very rich set of protections but at the same time there’s different parties who have different interests and different perspectives.
Wired: There’s been a lot press about pushback, about complaints in the enterprise that this isn’t so much a boon as another thing to worry about.
Beckstrom: What we are hearing from here is primarily the intellectual property constituencies and some of the government affairs groups. There’s actually a lot of interest and excitement from some of the people on the other side of organizations out there that doesn’t come through because they don’t want to telegraph their intentions.
Wired: If I’m hearing you correctly, the marketing people are champing at the bit but the IP lawyer guys are biting their nails?
Beckstrom: In many cases we believe that’s the case, but we’ll all see in May when we publish the list of all the strings that have been applied for. Then we’re really going to get an idea of what innovations we might see, what creative new ideas there are, what communities may come forward.
For example, “.cat” or “punto-cat” for Catalan is very popular in the Catalan region of Spain. That has a meaning to them no one else in the world sees because you and I are not using “punto cat” domain. I received a letter from the chief of the Zulu tribe stating that he intends to apply for .zulu because the Zulu people are spread across so many national boundaries in Africa and they want to have a meeting place as a people.
Wired: So given the interest, the time in the making, and democratization aspects, why is this only a three-month program?
The commitment that we’ve made to the global community to ensure the security and stability of the internet is to run the process at a maximum rate of a thousand new top level domains per year. We don’t know how may applications we’re going to receive. There are forecasts anywhere from a few hundred to as many as four thousand. We at ICANN don’t have a forecast. But we’ve set up the process so that we can roughly accommodate one thousand approvals a year if need be.
Wired: So assuming all goes well, this is an annual program, with a window?
It’s a recurring program that will be reshaped again with successive windows. We do intend for there to be a subsequent round as soon as this round is processed and certain reviews are done and certain program changes are made to accommodate those recommendations.
Wired: I assume you are anticipating sufficient interest for this to actually be a recurring program?
Our job is to make sure the domain name system is secure and stable, that it has an orderly evolution and that it be fair. If we only learn that there’s 100 applications and no one has an interest in a subsequent round, that’s fine. The applications are fairly complex things — they have about 50 questions, answers will probably be two pages on average. It will take nine to 20 months to process each application.
Wired: So you might not get around to actually issuing these new domains for nearly two years?
Beckstrom: The earliest that any could come into the root of the internet is early mid-next year.