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BW Businessworld

The Domain Magic

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If you had to compromise on your company's domain name because a cyber-squatter was quicker than your own IT team, brace up to snap up your ideal domain name in the next round. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the apex body that assigns domain names globally, will accept applications for top-level domain (TLD) names between January and April 2012. TLDs are the 22-strong family of domain names such as the .com, .net and .in. According to Icann, entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and communities can apply to operate a TLD of their own choosing. That makes .India — rather than the .in that is used as the country code — as much a possibility as .reliance, .tata or .Rajinikanth, for a substantial price, of course. Currently, there are more than 240 country code TLDs (including applications for dependent territories, etc).

New Forms
Icann, which expects 300-500 TLD applications, will charge $185,000 (about Rs 85 lakh) for every TLD name. Registrants will also have to pay either a quarterly fee of $6,250 (Rs 2.8 lakh) or an annual fee of $25,000 (Rs 11.5 lakh). Any entity can apply for a TLD as long as it fulfils conditions in the Applicant Guidebook for TLD registrations. For the first time ever, applications for Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) was called for. Simply put, IDNs sport characters used in local languages not written with the basic Latin alphabet (a-z), European-Arabic digits (0-9) and the hyphen. At the Icann meet in June, several companies and communities expressed their interest in registering their own TLDs.

While the communications and IT ministry plans to apply for .bharat and .India, Mumbaikars too are readying for their own identity. A company called India TL Domain has got support from the city administration to register the .mumbai TLD and recover its investment by selling generalised TLDs such as www.narimanpoint.mumbai. Icann expects that all major global corporations and organisations to move to secure their domain names. The interested parties for now include Canon, Deloitte and Unicef.

Icann is primarily looking at four major categories: brands (those who lost out on registering their desired .com), generic names such as .game and .business, those based on geography such as .himalayas, .delhi or .agra, which can be used to promote tourism and local culture, and those for a cause or community such as .indian, .painter, .lawyer or .doctor.

The need for more names was triggered by the overwhelming demand for a .com name — which was the first and the most generic domain name. But the irony is that the more Icann opened up .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro in the first round of domain name expansion in 2000, the more registered with .com for exclusivity. As a result, many missed a .com name. More than 200 million domain names are registered in the world today and about 84 million of them are registered in .com. Nearly 15 million are registered in .net. 

Trouble Links
But even as the programme gains momentum, opposition is also building up. Experts say that flooding the Web with new domain names would create new avenues for cyber-squatting and online fraud. "Even now, rogue websites attempt to gain traffic directed to another site," says Paula Greve, director of Web security research at McAfee.

Clearly, the enormous fees for registering TLDs could deter cyber-squatters who registered names such as tata.com and dhirubhaiambani.com in the first rush (before they were evicted). But how will Icann determine the right authority applying for the domain? Icann says it has defined strict evaluation criteria on who can apply for which domain names. Icann sees greater possibilities of disputes in generic TLDs, which could prolong the process of evaluation. While a non-disputed application may take nine months to process, a highly complex one would require about 20 months.

Icann says it will also examine applications for trademark violations. It has set up a dispute resolution process for cyber-squatting cases. A "clearinghouse" will let brand-owners block third parties from registering their marks under any new domain name. For this, Icann has set up a process — Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP). "In most cases, genuine squatting can be dealt with as routine encroachment and resolved using UDRP and other existing legal mechanisms. Also, the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization is working on a set of processes, which will make it easier for a brand to complain against cyber squatting," says Bhavin Turakhia, founder and CEO of Web-hosting firm Directi.

But what will Icann do if a .reliance is applied for by both Reliance Industries (which uses www.ril.com) as well as the current owner of www.reliance.com? "Icann will look if any one applicant has some right to that word. Then the next step could be an auction," says Manish Dalal, vice-president APAC of naming services division at communications major VeriSign. "Take the word shop for example. It is a generic word and nobody has any intellectual property rights around it. Hence, it may be sold in an auction, too." Categorisation on the basis of brands, geographies and causes will help reduce multiple applications, as they are generally unique and can be easily evaluated, adds Dalal.

Critics, however, say that though companies can create their own TLDs, mid-level players may not be able to buy domain names due to the high fee. "Trademark protections were identified in the community during programme implementation as an issue that needed to be addressed," says Icann spokesperson Brad White. "New protections include a rapid takedown process (Uniform Rapid Suspension), the mandatory Trademark Claims and Sunrise processes to be conducted by all registries and a post-delegation dispute process where claims can be made directly against registries."

In an era where promoters register their domain names before they register companies, the Icann move has come as a breath of fresh air. It is equally important that it irons out all the issues before it goes live with the TLD sales.

abhinav(dot)sharma(at)abp(dot)in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-09-2011)