Although most Americans have probably never heard of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the California not-for-profit manages top-level domains: that part that comes after the "dot" in, for example, dot-com, dot-net, and dot-gov. Today's hearing focuses on how to balance ICANN's plans to expand the availability of top-level domains with safeguards to ensure businesses are not forced to spend extraordinary sums to guard against fraud, trademark abuse, or dilution of their brands.
For several years, ICANN has considered the expansion of top-level domains. Reasonable people can differ on the process that ICANN has followed leading to this point. But we now stand at the threshold of implementation and the question before us is what's the best path forward?
To illustrate concerns of critics, consider the number of domains a company may be faced with registering. Apple, for example, has apple.com, iphone.com, icloud.com, and ichat.com. Ipad.com, however, displays nothing more than a splash page that says a site is coming soon -- likely meaning someone bought the
domain name in anticipation of selling it to Apple. The House of Representatives information security group has flagged Facetime.com as a malicious site that may attempt to install rogue scripts on your computer if you visit it. These are just a few examples of the issues that arise every day on the Internet between cybersquatters, criminals, and legitimate businesses.
Now, bear in mind that all of these examples are in the dot-com top-level domain. To protect against mischief, Apple also owns domain names in other top-level domains, like apple.info, to say nothing of the more than 200 "country code" top-level domains and the international domain names that use non-latin alphabets.
Under the expansion that ICANN will begin this January, trademark holders are concerned that not only will each new top-level domain present a new chance for bad actors to purchase second-level domains for nefarious or illegitimate purposes, but that the top-level domains themselves could become fertile ground
for cybersquatters This is particularly concerning to trademark holders because each application for a top-level domain carries a $185,000 price tag.
To try to protect business interests in this new world of nearly unlimited top-level domains, ICANN has instituted a seven month objection period for each new top-level domain application. One of the objections available to companies is that a new top-level domain infringes on another's legal rights. To address second-level domain issues ICANN has required a trademark clearinghouse and "sunrise periods" during which trademark holders can pre-register for domain names.
None-the-less, the success or failure of even the best planned processes comes down to execution. How will ICANN implement these processes? What lessons can be learned early in the process to prevent failure? Are there additional safeguards in the event that this process doesn't work as advertised? These and other questions are the reason for today's hearing and I look forward to the testimony of ICANN, the NTIA, those who have had good experiences with the limited expansion of top-level domains to date, and those who are still concerned that their valuable brands stand to be tarnished by this process.