No, I am not a University of Oklahoma fan (Go Irish!). But the nickname of the University of Oklahoma represents a fascinating part of American History. Poor, landless homesteaders, unable to find a home in the crowded, expensive Eastern states seized the rare opportunity to  stake their claim to parcels of newly opened Oklahoma lands.

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Fast forward 120 years…

The Problem

The internet is crowded. Ask any oddly named startup why they settled on their name, and one of the reasons will inevitably include that it was the only way they could get a .com domain. Other companies ‘get’ their domains. Take a look at our own “getsocialize.com.” Even Firefox, a mainstay of the internet dating way back to Netscape Navigator, didn’t have “Firefox.com” until recently. For years, you needed to go to “getfirefox.com” because firefox.com was taken. While some of this digital real estate was legitimately purchased, much of it was simply bought by squatters, speculators who purchased up every common word domain at the dawn of the domain system and extort large fees from legitimate companies who may want those names. One of the largest hurdles when starting a new company is finding an available domain to help establish a digital brand.

ICANN to the Rescue

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has stepped up to the plate–kind of. ICANN is responsible for regulating domain names. For many years the top level domains, .com, .net, .info have remained fairly standard along with country code domains like .uk and .it (although these have also been repurposed by companies like bit.ly, .ly being a designation usually used for companies in Libya). In order to help relieve the domain name crunch, ICANN is opening up the previously limited top level domains allowing new top level domains using whatever words companies wish to sponsor. A belief that this will create a more open internet where domains more accurately reflect the products and services provided is driving this movement. The move by these modern day Boomers, however, raises some important issues and concerns, particularly for small companies and start-ups.

The New gTLD’s

ICANN is now allowing private companies to control additional generic Top-Level Domains (gTLD’s). What does that mean? Private companies can apply to manage an entire domain. What are some of the new top level domains being discussed: .books, .music, .cars, .film. Want to see more? Check out this video compilation or full list of names. ICANN lists many benefits to being a top level domain provider including

“Potential Benefits

  • Entrepreneurship. Create your own business model and establish accessibility policies for your TLD. If your customers want tighter security, make your TLD a high-security zone.
  • Increased control. You set the rules and the price for those registering your TLD.
  • Ongoing revenue stream. Your customers could renew their domain names year after year.
  • Innovative marketing opportunity. Build better brand definition, brand awareness, brand loyalty and trust by having full control over your own TLD.
  • Innovative business models. When new gTLDs combine with other emerging Internet technologies, such as IPv6, RFID chips, and cloud computing, new products and services are possible.
  • Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs). Increase market reach by making the Internet completely accessible to users whose local languages use non-Latin characters.
  • Engage your community. Create a rallying point for supporters of your cause, community or culture to unite with a community-based TLD.
  • Bring together your geographic area. Celebrate your local citizens, commerce, activities, and culture with a geographic TLD.”

From ICANN

Sounds Great! Control, new revenue streams, better brand definition. What a great way to build a small company and carve out a segment of the internet. But there is a catch–the Sooners got there first. Each application to manage a gTLD costs $185,000. Applicants must also be ready to pay continuing fees to ICANN as well as prove they have the means to provide the  infrastructure and technical ability to keep the registry running for at least 3 years. This would be a tall order for smaller companies. I doubt ICANN will accept a company whose idea of scaling up includes adding a few instances on AWS (or will it soon be “www.amazon.cloud”?). As a result instead of the wild west land rush providing land to the little guy willing to put in some cultivation work, the wild west of the internet is only accessible to well entrenched companies looking to add to their existing estates. Additionally, because of the plethora of new gTLDs, protecting a brand in this new digital landscape, once requiring only securing a few domain names, now  necessitates attempting to acquire an endless number of domains increasing the possibility of competitors or squatters chipping away at your valuable  brand. Furthermore, because the owners of the gTLD’s exercise almost absolute control they can limit access to the new domains or price out those wishing to register domains in their realm. While these new registrars must agree to a general set of rules, these agreements are not restrictive and the rest of the internet community is left to trust their more fortunate brethren to act as good citizens.

ICANN advertises the new gTLD system as a way to keep the internet open allowing market forces to shape the future of the internet. But the requirements imposed on becoming a registrar may foster an environment where established companies are given an advantage and innovative startups might struggle trying to stake their claim on the digital frontier. I don’t believe that the current system is perfect, but there are benefits to simplicity. If I know to use “getsocialize” to download the latest SDK, I can be reasonably sure it is either a .com, .net, or .org and just give them a try. In this new digital age, it could be one of thousands of possible domains. Adding complexity can also add confusion for the most important player–the customer. By trying to make the domain system more open, ICANN may actually be restricting the usability of the system by those not fortunate enough to be at the highest levels. The privatization of something as essential as internet routing could create a drastic chasm between the digital have and digital have nots. The new Boomers should learn from the past and be wary of the digital Sooners.

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