Why domain name expansion will cause mayhem on the internet


A year after ICANN announced its plans to expand the TLD (Top Level Domain) namespace, we are finally able to see the application list for new TLDs. There are nearly 2 000 applications, each costing US$185 000. ICANN believes that each suffix will cost owners about US$25 000 per year to maintain and they will be required to commit to a 10-year maintenance agreement.

Among the applications are many variations on a theme and conflicts over potential ownership. As a result, these suffixes are all going through a review process. For the next seven months major players will have an option to veto the introduction of particular TLDs. Since there are so many applications and there are many conflicts that need to be resolved, ICANN is planning on releasing the new domains in batches of 500 in a go. The first batch should go live in about a year. Of course, the plan to expand the namespace so dramatically has been met with mixed opinion.

Domain registrars and domain squatters are rubbing their hands in glee at the likelihood of increased revenue streams, but this does open up a can of worms for businesses on the internet. In many cases, businesses feel that in order to protect their brand, they are in a position where they need to buy up as many versions of their domain name as possible. For instance, Memeburn owns memeburn.com, memeburn.co.za, memeburn.mobi.

This is a relatively mild take on the problem. Institutions like banks have to be a lot more careful. Barclays Bank PLC owns nearly every variation on the Barclays domain name, from barclays.com through to barclays.asia. By adding a couple of thousand variants to the TLD namespace, it is going to become nearly impossible for businesses to protect branding across domain namespaces. Depending on the type of person that you are, you might see this as a good thing or a bad thing. Registrars don’t care. At the end of the day, this is guaranteed to result in a lot more money changing hands.

One of the problems with this is that while more money will be circulating, we haven’t produced anything of value. Much of the work associated with domain management can be automated. This isn’t going to create a whole lot of new jobs. It’s not going to provide something that is going to improve the value of the internet as a whole and yet its going to have end businesses desperately trying to cover bases. Being on the web is going to cost a whole lot more.

Perhaps the clearest reason for this comes down to a simple security issue. Spoofing domains to look like they are coming from a reputable source is going to become much easier. When you receive an email from barclays.corp or barclays.security or barclays.bank or barclays.company or end up at one of these sites, there is going to be little way to verify genuine ownership without doing a domain whois request for each site you visit. Currently many internet users are fooled by phishing scams with the limited number of domains that we already have in existence. The plethora of new TLDs is just going to make this worse.

Another interesting problem posed by the expansion of namespace is that ICANN is finally letting go of the requirement for latin characters in a registered domain name. That’s really exciting in some ways. Chinese people will finally be able to type domain names into their browsers in their own native language and using their own character set. It seems hard to find criticism with this, but I expect that it is going to result in the web becoming even more fragmented, disconnected and divergent.

As we’ve seen things like the “great firewall of China” get launched in recent years, it seems fairly plausible that DNS within different countries may only cater to particular domains further limiting global access. Apart from this, most Westerners haven’t the faintest clue how to get non-latin characters from their keyboards. Through simple technical interface difficulty, a whole portion of the web is simply going to be inaccessible to the vast majority of users.

You may be wondering why there was a limitation on names in the first place. After all, surely we would eventually reach a point where we would run out of names. Back in the 1980’s, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) came up with a sensible proposition for the organisation of domain name space and released this in RFC 920. At the time, the general perception was that subdomains should be able to take care of all of our requirements. So, it was fairly rational to imagine something like zoos.org coming into existence. After that, you might find a particular zoo through a chain of subdomains: chester.uk.zoos.org or jhb.za.zoos.org. Unfortunately things didn’t work out quite so neatly and competition over domain name space heated up rapidly. Nowadays, a lot of domain namespace has become a free-for-all and the designations outlined in RFC 920 hardly apply.

In many ways, domain name space has become quite chaotic and is quickly losing its purpose. Looking back at its past, DNS was designed as a way to make it easier for humans to access systems that were otherwise allocated unique numerical IP addresses. As the number of possible combinations of words available to represent a single location on the web increases, the usefulness of the system as a mechanism to make it easier to remember where a site is becomes less obvious.

Many commentators are pointing out that domain names are becoming less important to people now. The average web user now simply uses search engines like Google to find the sites that they want. Mobile users are increasingly using apps to bypass the need for a web-browser to access internet space that they regularly use. With ICANN planning on being able to release around 1 000 new TLDs per year, any sensible organization of domain name space is going to go out of the window, but one has to wonder if is actually at a point where it has almost outlived its purpose.

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