Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Interview: Former ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate-Thrush On New Domain Names

Posted by Tom Foremski - December 1, 2011

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(Peter Dengate-Thrush, far right, outside an ICANN meeting in Paris. Source: ICANN)

ICANN, the California non-profit organization responsible for setting the name of all domains, will soon allow a vast array of new names to be created. Beginning next year, for the right amount of money ($185,000) you'll be able to create the right to use almost any word as a top level domain name (TLD) instead of generic TLDs .com, org, etc.

Canon, for example, could create and buy the exclusive rights to .Canon. Or a city could create its own TLD, such as .SanJose.

There will be huge numbers of new domain names possible, adding to the current 22 generic names and about 250 country names. The new naming system will also allow non-western script for the first time.

This seemingly simple change was far from simple in execution. It has taken more than ten years of work by ICANN, huge numbers of meetings around the world, input from over 85 countries, and consultations with hundreds of industry trade groups and corporations.

A decade spent navigating the multitude of special interest agendas is probably ICANN's biggest achievement.

Yet just weeks before the new naming policy is to be implemented there is yet another hurdle -- the US based Association of National Advertisers (ANA) announced its strong opposition to the new plan and it is actively encouraging others to oppose ICANN.

The ANA said that the new policy would be "introducing confusion into the marketplace and increasing the likelihood of cybersquatting and other malicious conduct, the ICANN top-level domain program diminishes the power of trademarks to serve as strong, accurate and reliable symbols of source and quality in the marketplace."

The ANA recently persuaded 87 business associations and large companies to back its opposition to the ICANN policy.

Opposition has also come from adult video makers who have sued to stop the .XXX TLD because of trademark concerns.

A common belief is that the new names will force companies to register large numbers of domains to keep them out of the hands of competitors, or others that might be engaged in nefarious schemes, which might damage their brands.

I spoke with Peter Dengate-Thrush, who spent 12 years at ICANN, seven years as chairman, before stepping down in June. He is now chairman of Top Level Domain Holdings Ltd, a publicly traded company that invests in TLD related businesses and services.

Here are some notes from our conversation:

- The ANA had plenty of time to voice any concerns during the multi-year process of defining the new policy.

- We've worked hard to make ICANN become an international organization rather than be seen as a US organization. If ANA succeeds it will make it seem as if ICANN is controlled by US special interests. We have worked hard to make ICANN into an international organization that has nothing to do with the US or any other country. We managed to remove US government oversight in key areas.

- We've worked hard at ICANN to ensure that we have a single global Internet. There were many times when the Internet could have fractured into several distinct Internets, which would have been very bad news for the development of the Internet. We prevented that from happening by showing that ICANN is not controlled by the US and serves everyone.

- We have essentially been creating the operating system for the Internet.

- Internet users will benefit greatly from the new naming policy because it gives them easier navigation and safety in that they will be better able to trust the domain names they see.

- Some of the members of the ANA group opposing ICANN are companies that have expressed strong interest in buying TLDs around their brands. It's puzzling.

- Google and other search engines sent representatives but they did not try to influence the new policy.

- I asked how will navigation of dotcom names be improved when Google has huge influence on where its users go, such as through its "Instant" search suggestions, and through a single type-in box in its Chrome browser that doubles as a search box and address. Plus, Google rankings are based on how long a site has been active. He said it might take a short while for the new domains to build in search rankings but that the names would help search engines better determine the authenticity of sites. There will be less cyber squatting not more.

- The new domains will be liberating for many Internet users in many countries because it will allow for non-western alphabets, and for regional domain names.

- There will be a cap of 1,000 new TLDs per year. Each applicant will go through a rigorous approval process by ICANN.

- Not all the new TLDs will succeed. Some will fail.

- The new naming policy will create new jobs in consulting and other services areas.

- The extra cost of registering domain names by major brands will be very small.

- Small businesses will be able to buy names such as .plumber.SanFrancisco, which will help in marketing.

- The new policy is essential if the Internet is to reach billions of new users. It took a long time to reach 1 billion users because the Internet is based on decisions made in the mid-1980s, it wasn't designed to scale to billions of users. The introduction of the new TLD policy plus the adoption of IPv6, will accelerate the time needed to add the next 1 billion users.

- One of the remaining challenges for ICANN is to remove US Department of Commerce control over the root zone file, a small but critical file that determines the entire address system of the Internet. The US oversight is simply to make sure that the file conforms to ICANN policy but many countries want to remove that connection because it looks as if the Internet is controlled by the US.

- Did he take the job at TLDHL to take advantage of the new ICANN policy? No, he left at the scheduled end of his term as chairman.


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