As internet usage continues to grow, the organisations responsible for managing top-level domain extensions are experiencing similar problems to those suffered by telecoms regulators seeking to manage the appropriate allocation of geographic telephone numbers in rapidly expanding metropolises. There simply are not enough “dot-com” extensions to satisfy customer demand. The solution identified for the internet, the approval of new and differing domain extensions, raises novel issues that also need to be resolved.
Initially, the internet developed collaboratively, and the Domain Name System (DNS) evolved as a solution to the issue of identifying the IP address of each computer linked to the internet. Domain extensions or Top Level Domains (TLDs), completed domain addresses whilst also providing helpful guidance as to the type of organisation behind the domain name: .com for commercial organisations, .org for non-profit organisations, .edu for educational institutions and .net for networks. Use of email and the world wide web expanded exponentially, however, and domain names soon became valuable in their own right. The shorter and more memorable the domain name, the more valuable it was. By way of example, “bt.com” is obviously more valuable (and easier to remember and type) than “britishtelecommunications.com”.
Companies have invested substantial sums of money in protecting their brand names and trade marks in relation to domain names. And with each new domain extension, companies have had no option but to register domains that include their brand names or trademarks and to prevent unscrupulous competitors taking advantage of their good name. The increase in the number of TLDs available has not therefore led to a proportionate increase in the number of domain names available for everyone.
As a result, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body responsible for approving decisions about domain extensions, has recently announced the approval of two new domain extensions: the “.xxx” extension for adult entertainment websites and the “.mobi” extension for websites designed for use on wireless devices, services and applications.
Background to .mobi and its creation
The application for a mobile TLD was one of the 10 applications submitted to ICANN in response to its request for proposals for new TLDs.
The initiative for .mobi came from a number of players in the mobile industry. Vodafone, Nokia and Microsoft started the lobbying in the industry in 2003 and were later joined by a number of other operators, including: 3, Ericsson, the GSM Association, Hewlett Packard, Matsushita, Orange, Samsung, Syniverse Technologies, Telefonica Moviles, Sun Microsystems, T-Mobile and Telecom Italia Mobile. Together, they established a company, mTLD Ltd, based in Dublin, Ireland.
A contract between ICANN and mTLD was signed on 11 July 2005, establishing the .mobi domain and appointing mTLD Ltd as its registry for an initial period of 10 years.
mTLD has stated that it wants to “create a registry service to the .mobi domain which will serve as a reliable and recognisable mechanism for internet content and services that are specifically tailored to mobile experience, thereby promoting the considerable opportunities those services represent to the telecommunications, mobile, internet and media industries”. In essence, mTLD will dictate the standards with which websites will have to comply to ensure that web pages display properly on mobile device screens.
It is estimated that the first domain names will be available in the first half of 2006. A 90 day sunrise period will allow companies with trademarked names to obtain a second level .mobi domain. If your company has a .com/.net/.org extension, now is the time to register the same .mobi extension. Generic second level domains will then be allocated on a first come, first served basis after expiry of the sunrise period.
Arguments for a .mobi TLD
The companies behind mTLD have advanced a number of arguments in support of a .mobi TLD. These include:
Enhancement and improvement but at the same time simplification of the use of internet-based mobile data services and the potential for seamless global access and interoperability of services.
Optimisation of sites for the delivery of content and services to mobile devices, which will in turn attract users by their quality of service.
Creation of opportunities for ASPs, software developers and registrars, enabling them to diversify their revenue sources by extending their respective markets.
Development of the market for mobile devices.
Arguments against a .mobi TLD
A number of other interested parties, however, have voiced strong opposition to the .mobi concept. Arguments include:
The risk of having a self selected group of players representing the interests of the whole industry and using .mobi to enhance their own businesses rather than considering the interests of other parties.
Fragmentation of the internet: dividing the WWW according to the technologies that underlie it would destroy its universality.
The inevitable additional costs, since companies will need to protect their brands and thus be forced to buy domain names. Larger companies will be more able to fund this process than small companies, potentially leading to a greater competitive edge. A rush to secure brands could furthermore cause instability in the market generally.
Auctioning certain names descriptive of a field, e.g., music.mobi, would undoubtedly privilege certain operators.
Background to .xxx and its creation
In contrast to the .mobi TLD, the .xxx TLD was an initiative of the ICM Registry, an organisation founded five years ago specifically to seek approval of the .xxx TLD. On the 1 June 2005, ICANN announced that ICM’s proposal met its established criteria for new TLDs. ICM and ICANN are currently negotiating a contract to generate this new TLD. ICM will operate this registry and will provide its management and supporting infrastructure. IFFOR (The International Foundation for Online Responsibility), a Canadian non-profit organisation, will serve as the policy-making authority for the .xxx TLD.
Supporters of the .xxx TLD argue that its need is highlighted by the fact that the online adult entertainment industry is one of the largest sectors on the internet.
Arguments for a .xxx TLD
Advocates of the new TLD argue that its implementation will lead or contribute to:
A tool for parents to restrict access for their children to unsuitable content.
The promotion of self regulation, self organisation and best business practices in the online adult entertainment industry.
The protection of free expression rights.
Arguments against a .xxx TLD
Arguments against the proposal include:
Registration for .xxx domain names will be voluntary. Some operators may deliberately choose not to register, perhaps due to concerns that their websites would be blocked by search engines, resulting in no better protection for children from unsuitable content. Some people have also suggested that the TLD should be mandatory for all sex-related websites. This however would only confuse the issue further, because not all sex-related websites offer adult entertainment (e.g. sex education/sex information websites).
There is also the issue of how to define what is pornographic. Standards for adult material vary from country to country, and having one domain with one standard would be arbitrary and potentially unenforceable.
Additional costs will once again have to be incurred by businesses who do not wish their names to be associated with adult entertainment.
It is too early to tell how successful the introduction of the new TLDs will be. Initial indications, however, have not been particularly positive. This can be demonstrated by focusing on one particular issue for each proposal.
The .mobi TLD concept is inconsistent with the principle of device independence, which fundamentally underpins the operations of the internet. Indeed, the success of the world wide web can be ascribed in large part to its universality. By introducing a .mobi TLD, there is a risk that other technologies will need to be granted their own TLDs. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that technology will continue to develop and evolve. In Japan, where use of mobile devices to access the internet is already common, it was felt that there was no need to introduce .mobi, that it did not add value to users, and that it has the potential to hinder the use of other TLDs in mobile businesses. Added to this is the very valid practical point that 4-letter TLDs are slower to type than three-letter TLDs, and both “M” and “O” are on the same key of a mobile phone, resulting in even slower keying. Both .mp or .wap (suggested as alternatives if a mobile TLD is necessary at all) have the advantage of being the first letter on separate keys.
In respect of the .xxx TLD, it is worth remembering the efforts of Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court to define “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying: “I shall not attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced…[b]ut I know it when I see it.” Justice Stewart wrote this in 1964. It is a question that the US (and other jurisdictions) continues to struggle with today. There is simply no agreement on what is or is not pornographic. Users are already experiencing problems with filtering software. For example, the word "lesbian" is often used as a keyword for software designed to filter out pornographic content as software developers appear to have assumed that lesbians exist for adult entertainment purposes only. This presents some obvious challenges for actual lesbians and websites designed to provide sex education. Establishing and enforcing TLDs such as .xxx will not resolve this problem, it will only exacerbate it, and given that there is no agreement over what should or should not be covered by the .xxx TLD, it raises the question as to what purpose the TLD will actually serve. It is surely essential that it should not be used to inhibit or prevent the dissemination of sexual health or sex education information.
Having said that, however, internet usage is not going to decline, so we can expect additional TLDs to be introduced in the future. Remembering a .com, .net or .mobi TLD is substantially simpler than having to remember particular geographic telecoms area codes, especially when making international telephone calls. Perhaps the most pressing issue, therefore, is not whether .mobi and .xxx TLDs will be adopted by the market, but how ICANN and other regulatory bodies should address additional TLDs in the future.
First published in the July 2005 issue of E-commerce, Law and Policy.