A Domain By Any Other Name
Websites are headed towards major name changes. Recent amendments have authorized the creation of a porn specific .XXX domain, allowed non-Latin alphabet characters into the address bar, and most significantly freed top-level domain names from the conventional endings of .com, .org, .edu, et al. When these changes trickle down to the average user, the Internet will never be the same.
ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – a governing body of the Internet, recently adopted a series of sweeping policy changes. The timeline is roughly as follows:
- May 2010, the language of the website address literally changed through the implementation of internationalized domain names. For the first time ever, website addresses could be created in non-Latin based alphabets (i.e. Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic).
- After much debate, in March 2011, ICANN developed the .XXX domain name, allocating an Internet location exclusively for the adult industry.
- Perhaps the most revolutionary change of all came on June 20, 2011, when ICANN President Rod Beckstrom announced approval of a plan to allow Internet address top-level domain names to be freed from the restrictions of the current 22 endings (which includes the familiar .com, .org and .net). As Beckstrom phrased it, “The Internet’s addressing system has just been opened up to the limitless possibilities of human imagination and creativity…So when you think dot-com, dot-net, now think dot-open to new things, to new ideas.”
With just these three new naming possibilities, the extent of their effects are wholly unpredictable but most certainly expansive.
Consider the adoption of internationalized domain names. At first glance, this appears to be a gesture of acceptance. What poses as an act of inclusion for a global community and an embrace of every possible language of the population, however, delivers a set of disconnects and a slew of issues through the abandonment of a single universal alphabet.
Many of these issues are cited by Computer Science Professor Daniel Bernstein in an article on his website critiquing the internationalized domain names. Most of Bernstein’s concerns are around the programing and security issues surrounding character-set expansion. Bernstein offers the following example:
“Users frequently check whether domain names are the same by reading the names… However, if Greek omicron is allowed, the same procedure becomes inherently unreliable, no matter how careful the reader is. In some situations the procedure can be exploited by attackers to violate security. …by treating α.com (lowercase Greek alpha dot com) equivalently to Α.com (uppercase Greek Alpha dot com), so that the confusion of Α.com and A.com extends to confusion of α.com and a.com. It will be impossible to correct this mistake later if any users start relying on separate registrations of Α (Alpha) and A.”
The BBC solicited reactions from Internet users upon the announcement of ICANN’s plans to allow non-Latin-script web addresses. One particularly poignant observation came from a user who would have seemed a likely been a beneficiary of the internationalized domain expansion, Stefanos Likkas, of Athens, Greece;
“It may seem as counter-intuitive but being Greek, and Greeks don’t use the Latin alphabet, I find this change very worrisome. There is a great danger that the Internet, which has hitherto been a unitary tool for culture, information-sharing and dialog on an international level may become irreversibly fragmented. It will become even more difficult to access information databases in Russian or Chinese websites…It somehow feels regressive.”
These possible consequences, the fragmentation of the Internet and security concerns, continue thematically with regard to the subsequent website name changing policy, that of the .XXX domain allocation.
The new website suffix .XXX operates with rules different from many of its predecessors. To acquire a .XXX domain a set of criteria must be met – namely, the content of the site must be related to the adult industry. The motivation of ICANN behind forming the .XXX domain appears to be that of creating a clear identification for explicit web content – making it easy to discern (for adults) and easy to block (from children and underage viewership). While the security of children is truly a concern, like many safeguard solutions of the past, the .XXX domain seems to provide more censorship and free-speech concerns rather than its proposed services and conveniences. In a Rhizome.com discussion surrounding a previously considered safeguard solution (that of setting up a “.kids” domain – a safe place for children to browse the web), self proclaimed digital rights activist Liza Sabater warns of the start of a “ghettoization of the internet” through the sectioning off virtual real estate. Sabater declares domains that use specific criteria are not to be considered “digital sanctuary,” but rather, “digital ghettos, reservations and encampments. They will not be there to protect our freedoms. They will be there to delimit the fiefdoms of the corporate lords of the Internet.” Perhaps her sentiment seems dramatic, but even Wired.com refers to the new .xxx domain as a “Red-Light District For The Internet.”
While the adoption of .XXX by the adult websites is completely voluntary, it will be interesting to see if the allocation is wholly rejected as so-called ghettoization or embraced as ideal website branding, and fertile ground for new adult sites to expand and grow into.
None of the fore mentioned website name changing policies provide as much uncertainty and speculation as that of the elaborate expansion of the top-level domain names.
In the immediate future, this ICANN policy will be seen mostly through corporate websites. This is thanks to the hefty price tag surrounding the acquisition of “limitless possibility” domain naming, and the ICANN application process being targeted towards using the new domains for promotional purposes. Even so, corporations will certainly be found struggling with this change. For as much as the policy opens a world of branding opportunities (Imagine, as the Los Angeles Times did, “Coca-Cola might control the domain .coke and assign Web addresses such as drink.coke or bottle.coke.”) – the policy also opens a “cybersquatting” can of worms. As the Financial Times highlighted;
“Companies are also concerned the move will spur increased “cybersquatting”, where trademark names are snapped up by Internet opportunists. Few are convinced by claims that the new system will create valuable ways for companies to brand themselves online.“This is a classic example of a solution without a problem,” Ken Hittel, vice-president of the corporate Internet department at New York Life Insurance Company, said.“This is essentially a protection racket run by ICANN on behalf of its true constituents, the registrars and registries”, who will profit from the expansion of the Internet addressing system he said.
“It is going to make it much more difficult for companies that are already having challenges defending their trademarks online,” said Chris Cylke, director of congressional and public affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.”
It could be predicted that in the near future, companies will begin to explore the possibilities and create ‘clever.names’ by being, as it was said, “dot-open to new things.” Marketing and advertising experts will have corporations spending lots of money to further develop their online identities, while branding pros will scramble to buy up all possible domains they required to protect their brand and image.
If this is the near future, for what ICANN dubbed, “limitless possibilities of human imagination and creativity,” then what becomes of the consumer, that is, the everyday Internet user?
Clearly, the results of ICANN’s recent developments will have far reaching ramifications, whatever those happen to be. Is the possible future of the Internet a fragmented world, speckled with unsavory ghettos and dominated by wealthy corporations?
What’s in a name? That which we call a website… By any other name – will change the Internet forever.