Has ICANN opened the door to a load of dot whatnots?

Stephen Pritchard

The idea that an internet domain name could soon be anything.almostanything raises some interesting possibilities.

From next year, ICANN, the governing body for internet addresses, will allow applications for new top level domains, to join the ranks of .com, .org, and .net.

By the end of 2012, brands, entrepreneurs and even cities will know whether their applications have been accepted and their $185,000 (115,760) cheques cashed.

Leaving aside the initial reaction - like this could make a rather good storyline for Viz magazine's Roger Mellie, who would doubtless rush out and register a bunch of dot obscenities the facility poses an interesting set of questions for brand owners and businesses.

Firstly, the new gTLDs are hardly cheap. Secondly, any organisation applying will have to show a legitimate claim to the domain they are requesting. Canon, for example, has said it will apply for .Canon, but a claim to dot digitalcamera would no doubt be disputed by Nikon or Sony.

In other industries, claims to a gTLD might be even more contentious. Who owns dot London, for example? And Manchester City Council already owns manchester.gov.uk. Would it feel obliged to spend council tax payers' money on dot Manchester? Or would it face a bidding war with the city's two resident football clubs? No wonder ICANN is hiring consultants to supervise the application process.

Companies might not want to rush to register new domains, especially if their existing dot com or .co.uk site is well enough known, and ICANN says it has taken steps to prevent cybersquatting.

However, firms will need to monitor the impact on their brand closely, especially if competitors already operate online with similar names, and no doubt there will be a rush to register the most popular (not obscene) gTLDs.

For consumers, the new domains raise the prospect of even further confusion when it comes to doing business online.

Unless ICANN is very firm in policing both applications and the resale of domains, there is a real danger that cyber criminals might register domains that look similar to existing brands or use social media and social engineering to drive traffic to criminal sites.

It would be very easy indeed to write a convincing spam email prompting consumers to point their browsers at a new online.banking site, suitably dressed up to appear legitimate.

With 18 months or so to go before the new gTLDs start working, there is time for ICANN to iron out some of the issues. There is also a window of opportunity for businesses to ensure their customers know their real domains. They should not waste that chance.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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