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New Top-Level Domains and Software Implications

Many software applications rely on validation routines to check the validity of domain names. By validation, I mean here to test the string submitted by the user and see if it matches a pre-defined pattern. A typical example are web forms that need to validate e-mail addresses.

This is by new means a new issue. It first appeared with the introduction of the .info Top-Level Domain (TLD). Before that TLDs were only two or three letters long, and many validation routines could not cope with the 4 letters of .info. At the time, ICANN had developed a testing tool which allowed developers to test if their code took into account the requirement for 4 letters. Still, you find today in the Internet tons of library routines that do not support 4 or more letter TLDs.

Some of these routines also rely on a hard-coded list of TLDs. Even today, I sometimes find that some web sites cannot deal with my .eu domain, which was introduced 4 years ago. There are hundreds of thousands of these routines written in Javascript, PHP, Perl, ColdFusion, ASP and just about any programming or scripting language you can think of.

In the Draft Applicant’s Guidebook to new generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), ICANN has clearly indicated that it does not guarantee universal acceptance of the new TLD, and rather place the burden on the registry operator to educate its customers. This made sense during the previous news TLD rounds, where there were only a few were added, one at a time and with long intervals between them.

With the new gtLD round, ICANN plans to add a lot of TLDs, potentially at very close intervals, if not at the same time. The figure most often heard is 500. That is a quantum leap forward. All those hard-coded lists deeply buried in software will need to be updated. It will not happen overnight. It may take years. This time also, we are throwing into the mix TLDs which could be long strings, like .coca-cola. We are also adding IDN (internationalized Domain Names) in non-ASCII characters, which will be a real issue with all environments that do not process double-byte strings. There are tons of legacy applications that do not support that, and some never will.

The good news is that programmers do not need to worry about their job. There is plenty of work ahead. The bad news is that most of them are not aware of these upcoming TLDs, let alone the implications it will have on the code they wrote, or the code they use and written by someone else.

So, it does not make sense now for ICANN just to say it is someone else’s problem. If the new gTLDs cannot be processed on the client platforms, this will mean their acceptance by the user community will be low. This means less revenue for registries, registrars and finally ICANN. This would also mean a partial failure of the whole new gTLD program, for which ICANN will be accountable for. It could cost ICANN much of its credibility, because it would not be the failure of one specific TLD for which the registry could be blamed, it would mean the failure of several, all for the same reasons.

Hence, I suggested today to ICANN to plan a workshop at the Seoul meeting to help identify these issues, so that clear guidelines can be given to the software community and an awareness campaign can be launched. It is absolutely crucial to identify the issues, the amount of work they represent and the time it will take to fix the code before the introduction of these new Top-Level Domains.

By Patrick Vande Walle, All around Internet governance troublemaker

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