Should Amazon control the .book domain, or Google .blog?

Everyone who uses the Internet knows about “.com”: google.com, disney.com, even frankhecker.com. It’s one of the well-known suffixes for Internet domain names, along with “.org” (columbiaassociation.org) and “.gov” (howardcountymd.gov); the technical term for these suffixes is “top-level domains” or TLDs. You may have also seen domain names like bit.ly and t.co, for example as used in URL shortening schemes. Here the “.ly” and “.co” are actually two letter codes for Libya and Columbia (the country, not the city). (These are known as “country code top-level domains” or ccTLDs, and are more typically used for web sites outside the U.S., like http://www.gov.uk for the UK government.) But did you know that in future there may be top-level domains like “.hilton” or “.bmw” associated with individual companies, or more generic domains like “.blog” or “.book”?

It’s the latter possibility that I want to discuss in this post. Unless you’re deeply involved in matters Internet-related you’re probably not aware that there’s a special organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that’s responsible for (among other things) the structure of Internet domain names, including overseeing the organizations that sell domain names and deciding which top-level domains can be used. For some time now ICANN has been expanding the set of top-level domains. Some of these, like .biz, were created to provide an alternative for people who can’t get their preferred .com domain name; others, like .museum, were intended for use by particular types of organizations. (See Wikipedia for the complete list of so-called generic TLDs.)

ICANN is now going through another round of creating new top-level domains, with the aforementioned .blog and .book only two of the almost two thousand (!) possibilities being considered. At first glance this sounds pretty neat: I publish a blog, so I might be interested in having frankhecker.blog; similarly, I’ve published a book, Dividing Howard (shameless plug: all royalties go to the charity Voices for Children), so I might also be interested in having dividinghoward.book. However, .blog and .book are different from current TLDs like .com or .biz; as currently proposed they may not be open to the general public, but instead could be completely controlled by specific companies for their own use, in this case Google for .blog and Amazon for .book. (More correctly, .blog and .book would be controlled by someone; other companies are applying for .blog and book as well, and the right to control these TLDs could end up being auctioned off to the highest bidder.)

So, for example, Dennis “Wordbones” Lane hosts his “Tales of Two Cities” blog on Google’s Blogger service; if Google is able to go through with its plans then Dennis would be able to have his blog available at talesoftwocities.blog. On the other hand I host my blog with WordPress.com, so frankhecker.blog would be unavailable to me. Of course, if Dennis did use talesoftwocities.blog and became unhappy with Google’s blogging platform, he’d be out of luck; he’d have to put up with Google or find a new domain name.

Similarly, if Amazon gets its way I might be able to have the domain dividinghoward.book go straight to the Amazon page for Dividing Howard, which would certainly be convenient. But the book’s available on Barnes and Noble’s web site as well; I doubt that Amazon’s terms of service would allow me to link to bn.com from dividinghoward.book or otherwise promote non-Amazon outlets for the book. I also doubt that libraries, publishers, or others would be allowed to have .book domain names except at the pleasure of Amazon.

Needless to say, these proposed types of top-level domains (known as closed generic TLDs) are a bit controversial, at least among the relatively small group of people who follow these sorts of things; see for example this cNet story from last year that talks about Amazon’s “power play” in attempting to obtain dozens of generic top-level domains for itself. One common-sense objection makes the analogy to trademarks: Here in the U.S. at least you can’t get a trademark for a generic term; thus, for example, Amazon would never be in a position to tell an independent bookstore that it couldn’t use the word “book” in its name. A counter-argument is that the system of top-level domain names is not analogous to trademarks, and that little or no harm would ensure if Amazon or anyone else got exclusive control of a top-level domain like .book.

Why am I telling you all this now? Because ICANN is currently soliciting public comments on the proposal to allow .book and other closed generic TLDs, and the comment period closes in less than three days (at 7 pm on Thursday, March 7). This issue has been under the radar for the most part, without much public awareness; I wasn’t aware of it until recently, and I happen to work for a company that’s intimately involved in the technical infrastructure of the Internet Domain Name System.

If your opinion is especially strong one way or the other feel free to also write your congressional representative. ICANN ultimately acts only at the pleasure of the U.S. government, which controls it both directly (ICANN is under contract to the Department of Commerce) and indirectly (the U.S. government retains ultimately control of the technical infrastructure that would enable new TLDs like .book to work). But time is short. If you have an opinion on this matter, let them know!

P.S. For more information on the background to all of this, see the ICANN site or the independent newgtldsite.com.