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The Tempest in the TLD Teapot

At its recent meeting in Seoul ICANN announced with great fanfare that it’s getting ever closer to adding lots of new Top Level Domains (TLDs). Despite all the hype, as I have argued before (also here on CircleID), new TLDs will make little difference.

There are two mostly separate kinds of new TLDs. One is TLDs for countries in non-ASCII character sets, known as IDNs. They’re much less controversial, and ICANN will soon issue at least a few politically expedient ones like .?? with the name in Chinese which would be equivalent to .CN. This is the only real TLD problem, it was waiting for technical specs and implementation (not from ICANN), but that is now largely done.

The controversial issue is domains with random new names, gTLDs. I agree with my old friend Lauren Weinstein that this is a tempest in a very expensive teapot, because all of the purported reasons that people want new TLDs have been proven false, and the one actual reason that a new TLD would be valuable has no public benefit.

Back in the 1990s when this all started, search engines were still obscure experiments, and there was a broad feeling that industry specific TLDs would be used as directories. The failure of .MUSEUM and .AERO shows that DNS directories don’t work. There are plenty of directories, but they work by web queries, not DNS queries.

Another theory was that restricted TLDs could certify registrants as being genuine members of whatever the restricted field was. The failure of .PRO and .TRAVEL shows this doesn’t work either. Domain names aren’t a credible way to certify anyone.

The current leading argument is that the DNS needs “competition”, which was and is defined as “people switching from .COM to domains that I sell.” There is plenty to dislike about the way that ICANN has managed .COM, but the reality there is that VeriSign’s technical DNS management has always been fine, and the registration fee, while higher than it should be, is still trivial unless you’re a domain speculator.

Equally important, the rise of search engines makes specific domain names increasingly unimportant. Google’s Chrome, for example, has only one box where you type either a URL or search terms, and I would be surprised if half of its users know the difference. (It is my impression that typosquatting remains profitable only because people type search terms by mistake into a browser’s address box.)

The only “competition” problem to be solved by new gTLDs is that people want to replace VeriSign as the toll collector. If they want to waste $185,000 apiece to find out that it’s not going to happen, I have no particular opposition to what is in practice a tax on the foolish and greedy, but don’t expect anything to change.

One thing that new TLDs is likely to do is to act as browser keywords. If you were to get, say, .INSURANCE, and put a DNS A record at the name INSURANCE., that is, the plain TLD name, then when someone typed insurance into a browser’s address box, they’d go to your site. (Try typing dk or bi into the address box to see for yourself how it works.) There are some search keywords that pay $6 or more to Google for each clickthrough, and at that price the $185,000 TLD application fee is only 30,000 clicks, which isn’t that much, and after the first 30,000 the rest are free. It’s even more valuable if you wouldn’t get the clicks otherwise, such as buying .BOOKSTORE if you’re not Amazon or B&N. From the users’ point of view, this as we say does not lead to an improved experience, since it leads you to the most venal or desperate web site, not the best one that a good search engine would.

So, once again, perhaps with the narrow exception of countries getting their IDN country names (and even there, you’ll hear plenty of arguments that it was a bad idea to give the IDNs to the existing country registries), new TLDs still aren’t a good idea.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker

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For what it is worth, there is Kim Davies  –  Nov 9, 2009 5:05 PM

For what it is worth, there is no requirement that the new IDN country code top-level domains be operated by the existing country registries.

A distinction without a difference John Levine  –  Nov 9, 2009 5:48 PM

You're certainly technically correct that the IDN TLD could be run by someone other than the incumbent registry for the ccTLD, but since they're both approved by the same government agency it seems rather unlikely that anyone who wasn't allowed to register in one could get into the other. I don't see any politically viable alternative to the current approach, but it only addresses the issue of linguistic consistency, not acces to domains.

It is correct that the government must Kim Davies  –  Nov 9, 2009 6:02 PM

It is correct that the government must support the application for a string to represent a country name (e.g. "Is .?? an appropriate representation of China?"). This is out of concern that the string is not contentious for the purposes of the fast-track, and is in place of the ISO 3166-1 code used for ASCII ccTLDs today. However, for the application of the sponsoring organisation (i.e. registry operator), the same tests apply as are applied for ASCII ccTLDs, which do not require a government agency to approve a delegation. It is expected that the sponsoring organisation be located in the country and subject to local laws, but it does not an explicit government appointment or government approval. That is not to say governments won't necessarily be involved. They are important actors in the local Internet community and we expect in many countries they will be actively involved in that discussion. Anecdotally, we understand in at least some countries, the governments are in favour of seeing a different operator for the IDN ccTLD, so they may compete with the incumbent ASCII ccTLD operator.

Relying on history to determine the future of TLDs is a flawed way of thinking Constantine Roussos  –  Nov 9, 2009 7:21 PM

John, I would like to know how you can determine the future based on the history of .pro and .travel? The TLD industry needs a shakeup and new ideas. I strongly disagree with your comment. I look at the Pareto 80/20 rule as an example. 80% of new TLDs will fail, so congratulations for figuring that out. However you left out the other 20%.

How do you anyone’s business plan or implementation? It is quite insulting for you to lump every new applicant and put them in the same pool as everyone else.

.MUSIC will make no difference to your life. You are not a musician nor do you work in the music industry. Does everyone use Twitter? Your argument against new TLDs is bogus and unfounded. How can you predict the future based on the past?

So new .music gTLD has no public benefit? How about this for musicians:

- Ability to sell tickets for their shows
- Ability to get sponsored and get paid per time period
- Ability to get hired as a service provider
- Ability to broadcast their live performance over the net (PPV)
- Ability to sell downloads
- Ability to collect donations
- Ability to license their music
- Ability to sell customized merchandise
- Ability to revshare in advertising

Plus a host of other value added advantages & revenue generation possibilities to help the music community monetize, connect and share its content/services.

You can read all about our whole platform that will power .music at Music.us

I suggest before throwing bogus remarks about new TLDs offering no public benefit you should do more research than look at existing TLD operators. Maybe you should look into how excited the music community is for launching such a platform.

Domains by themselves do not offer any value except for branding and virtual real estate. However maybe you should ask yourself what can be done beyond offering just TLD names to provide value to community members.

If you need any more specifics about our .music initiative you can ask me for more details. I also suggest you ask other TLD applicants about what they will be doing with their business plans.

Many things have to change in the existing TLD sector for true innovation to become true. You just have to allow some to test their models and have the ability to succeed. Nowhere in your article above did you mention why new TLDs add no value. Your basis is quite flawed. You look at the past and you try to find ways to improve it. You cant just say that there is no future for new TLDs because of past operators. Your article arguments are weak. You dont know what TLD applicants are brewing. I guarantee you, 20% will surprise you. They will offer value to THEIR constituents/members. With or without you, value does not have to apply to everyone and everything. We live in a niche-based society. The new media does not look like the old.

Constantine Roussos

A fish, a barrel, a smoking gun. The Famous Brett Watson  –  Nov 10, 2009 12:54 AM

How can you predict the future based on the past?
It seems like a more sound method than predicting the future based on wishful thinking.
So new .music gTLD has no public benefit? How about this for musicians:
None of the abilities you cite even come close to requiring a .music domain name.

None of the abilities you cite even Constantine Roussos  –  Nov 13, 2009 1:49 AM

None of the abilities you cite even come close to requiring a .music domain name. The business model requires it. Musicians who have tested our beta demand it. The music concept is called a full "360-degree" platform. I am not required to do any business or embark on any venture. Entrepreneurs do it though. The question that you are not asking is whether those abilities add value to musicians in a consolidated effort and whether a .music would enhance the overall platform. Whether you agree with it or not is trivial because we hear it from musicians themselves on a daily basis. Listen to your customer not the critics. Target audience is key. You don't have to be a supporter of our initiative, since you have no vested interest in music. It seems like a more sound method than predicting the future based on wishful thinking. There is no wishful thinking in regards to the .music initiative. We are probably the most proactive group. It is called doing a feasibility analysis and testing your market. I doubt the 1 million signatures we received and over 300,000 social media followers are a fluke. Entrepreneurs create the future based on the present not the past. Don't mistake wishful thinking with preparation, financing, networking and development. It is easy for Phd students and most academic educators to call this wishful thinking. Academia is all about theories and essays. Step out in the real world and actually get your hands dirty and then we will talk about wishful thinking. The past can give us lessons and the present gives us what is needed right now. The future is all about meeting the needs of what is needed right now, not yesterday or 5 years ago.

Can't argue with that The Famous Brett Watson  –  Nov 13, 2009 4:43 AM

The business model requires it.
Let me see if I follow the logic. The long list of benefits you cited are not provided by the domain name, in and of itself, but by your business model. Your business model, in turn, requires the .music TLD. If that's the way it works, I'm in no position to argue, because I know nothing of your business model. I'll simply treat the claim with the same kind of generic scepticism I offer all plans of the sort, "1. Register new TLD; 2. ???; 3. Profit!" Far be it from me to oppose your venture, however, even if I wouldn't invest in it.

Unsure as well Dan Campbell  –  Nov 13, 2009 2:56 PM

Constantine, With no disrespect to your idea or business model as I have not read it outside of what you posted in your profile and in posts, I would also be skeptical if the elevator pitch bulleted those things as the main benefits of a music TLD. All those things are easily do-able now, are done now and have been for a long while. On the surface, they are not easily seen as drivers for a TLD. And it's not terribly difficult to find your favorite band's website whether it is .com or .whatever. If it is, they've really done a bad job marketing. If something like .music facilitiates and encourages these things through interest and enthusiasm, then that's a benefit and may spark the model. Often it is such hype and hysteria that fuels ideas, and the Internet has shown that many ideas that generate skepticim do take off and become game changing phenomenons, even silling things like (in my opinion) Twitter. And anything that fights back against the rotten big label music industry traditions is fine by me. I'm all for it. It's just that looking at those points, it's easy to argue that it can already be done in an TLD. I'm sure there's more meat to your proposal, but I'd be interested to find out what you mean about some of those points. Regarding tickets, the biggest issue now is the monopolistic (and in my opinion completely unfair and infuriating) dominance of Ticketmaster, which may become worse if they merge with Live Nation. If you can solve that issue, the issue that bands can't get around if they want to play a venue that has an exclusive deal with T'master, the issue that never works in favor of the fans, then you will become a saint to millions. Pearl Jam made a valient effort in the mid-90s - I still have a non-T'master souvenier ticket to one of their shows - but it was all for naught and too much effort for them to bear. Recent ticket-related issues on the Springsteen tours which infuriated him and his management were suspiciously fraudulant but despite being publicized could easily happen again, and even a powerhouse like Springsteen can't seem to stop it. If you are speaking of a secondary ticket market, that's different, although companies in that space are dime a dozen now anyway. If you are talking about tix to smaller non-T'master venues, well ok, but so what, those tix aren't hard to come by anyway. Overall, despite T'master's excessive fees and anti-customer practices, it's so much easier to get tickets now than it was back in day. I don't know how old you are, but a lot of younger people who missed the pre-Internet days of waiting overnight for days on end to get (or get rejected for) concert tickets don't understand that. At least now, even if you get shut out, you find that out within the first 5 minutes of your online attempt, and then you have numerous Craigs-list kind of options at your disposal.

Not Correct Daniel Golding  –  Nov 12, 2009 6:00 PM

“but the reality there is that VeriSign’s technical DNS management has always been fine, “

I beg to differ. Remember SiteFinder? The delays in DNSSec deployment (i.e. signing the root)? How about some non-technical issues like the self-perpetuating .com contract and the bullying of ICANN?

There have been significant issues and hand waving them away does not help.

As far as new gTLDs - why not allow the market to decide? The command-economy methodology we saw with foolishness like .pro was doomed to failure.

Sitefinder John Levine  –  Nov 12, 2009 11:20 PM

Like I said, VRSN’s technical management has been fine.  I am no more thrilled by sitefinder and other political shenanigans than anyone else, but a thousand more little domains limping along won’t change their political influence over ICANN.

As far as new gTLDs - why not allow the market to decide?

The market has clearly spoken, but as I said, if people want to squander $185K, I wouldn’t tell them they can’t.

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