A radical shake-up of the Internet's domain name system has been approved, allowing for an almost infinite number of new domain suffixes -- but only for those with plenty of cash.
The nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) decided at a meeting in Singapore Monday that it will open an application window for proposing new domain suffixes, which could be almost any word in any language, including those that use different scripts, like Arabic or Japanese.
The catch is that the application for a new suffix, which is a rather involved document, must be accompanied by a $185,000 application fee, which ICANN will keep regardless of the outcome of the application.
ICANN says the price is high because of the cost of review to make sure applicants have a legitimate claim to the suffix they're applying for, especially where trademark issues are involved, and to discourage scammers.
But the more clear implication is that ICANN is unabashedly allowing large corporations and other major brands to drive the future of the Internet, especially if it opts to act liberally in its approval of applications. Moneyed brands and organizations like Canon and UNICEF already say they'll submit an application, and coalitions are forming to apply for more generic terms like ".eco." And this is where the problems arise.
Would ICANN approve an application from, say, Ford for the ".truck" suffix? While the expansion of the domain name system is wonderful and necessary, this plan could threaten to turn the URL bar into yet another space for in-your-face marketing and branding.
ICANN's announcement that it will set aside $2 million to assist applicants from developing countries is little consolation for the pay-to-play nature of the process.
The group says it expects as many as a thousand applications, mostly from recognized companies and brands. So it seems that the greatest expansion of the domain name system since its inception is a big win for big business, amounting to the digital codification of today's corporate giants. But won't it seem a little silly if, in five years, Canon, say, is part of a merger or undergoes a name change, or disappears from our lexicon for some other reason -- and one of the world's newest domain endings becomes worthless overnight?
It seems like it might be better to adopt a system of expansion that's thoughtful enough to benefit real people, both today and in the future, rather than the biggest brands of this one moment in time.