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TLDs or No TLDs for Cities? Berlin Senate Wants Out

A fight has begun over the virtual existence of Germany’s capital: Does a .berlin address space have a right to exist beside the old standby berlin.de? The outcome of the fight could have a broader effect on the future of city names on the Internet.

After a recent hearing at Berlin’s City Parliament, Michael Donnermeyer, speaker of the Berlin Senate, said the right to the name Berlin belonged to the city and has to be protected. For the young company dotBerlin GmbH that is applying for a new city top level domain (TLD) with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Senate’s blockade could kill a long-nurtured project and could set a bad example for other initiatives like .london, .paris or .nyc, sources said.

The core question to be answered is whether name and trademark rights block geographic TLDs. This had been a concern of experts discussing proposals for ICANN’s planned procedure to introduce new TLDs (IPW, Internet and Communications Technology, 2 April 2007).

In summer 2005, dotBerlin took the stage to ask ICANN for a quick opening of a new round of TLD applications or a regular process for assigning new zones beside the classical .com,.net, .org, .info, .biz or the so-called country code TLDs like .de for Germany. With some of the attractive zones already heavily populated - .com has nearly 70 million domains, .de over 10 million - there was a perceived need to farm new virtual grounds. “Geo” TLDs are seen by many as a natural way to create spaces for large communities. Population-wise, dotBerlin CEO Dirk Krischenowski wrote in an article, “the average metropolis outranks 50 percent of all countries.”

Krischenowski’s idea and his standing up at every single ICANN meeting since finally got some traction. Thomas Lowenhaupt, interactive marketing consultant and long-time member of one of New York City’s community boards agreed with Krischenowski on how indispensable a virtual home is for the modern city dweller.

At a high-level ICANN meeting this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico, besides .berlin and .nyc, a project for .paris was presented, and an idea for a .baires (Buenos Aires) TLD discussed. For the next round of TLD introductions starting next year, applications are expected from at least half a dozen city and regional TLDs, like .cym for Wales, .gal for Galicia and perhaps some language-based TLDs from tribal nations in Latin America could be expected, said Werner Staub, secretary of the Council of Registrars, a Geneva-based international association that expects to provide back-end registry services for the regional TLDs.

“As we go forward, every day we do not have a space on the net where we can present ourselves is a tragedy,” said Lowenhaupt. In New York City, with its many immigrants and business start-ups, the need for new addresses is seen as vital. “You cannot get a decent name on .com,” said Lowenhaupt, and long-tail names under .us, like hilton.hotel.nyc.us, are less attractive.

Lowenhaupt had hoped for a .nyc domain years before after the Community Board of Queens passed a decision asking for .nyc in spring 2001. But after the September 11 attacks there were other things to deal with, and when ICANN started a new round to assign TLD space in 2003 the city was too busy with its application to host the Olympics to answer Lowenhaupt’s recommendations, he said.

Lowenhaupt said it was always clear that city support was crucial for a potential manager for a .nyc zone. And according to him, there is some precedent in the United States in the cities’ licensing of cablecasters and the latter’s obligation to provide for community channels. As is done for community channels, there should be an agency or a non-for-profit entity that works in the interest of citizens, managing the public resource, Lowenhaupt argued.

Lowenhaupt, meanwhile, set up a non-profit corporation and said he is focussing on the best possible governance structure. The holding of elections by New York Citizens for the Board for the .nyc managing corporation is one of the possibilities being explored, said Lowenhaupt. Could anybody then be opposed to address space for citizens? he asked.

Yes, if you believe the administration in Berlin. “We have decided after lengthy deliberations to not support dotBerlin’s application,” said Donnermeyer. “Mainly there are three reasons. First, we do not want to intervene in the market,” he said. A position on the board of dotBerlin offered “as a compensation to use the name” for the city government would mean they had not only to share responsibility for names like porno.berlin, but would participate in the selection of names like hotel.berlin or taxi.berlin.

“The state is obliged to neutrality,” said Donnermeyer. (The argument is reminiscent for those familiar with the just closed ICANN application round for sponsored TLDs where the controversial .xxx got voted down by the ICANN board partly for the reason that it was expected that ICANN would be dragged into responsibility for breach of content rules on the adult industry TLD.)

The second reason to deny support for .berlin, according to the spokesman, is that the Senate did not expect the concept of city TLDs “to have as much of a future as expected”. There were many cities where the concept did not work, said Donnermeyer, because of diverse spellings, like Roma, Rome or Rom or Munich’s dilemma between international or national spelling, including: Munich, Muenchen or München.

This argument puzzles Lowenhaupt. “I do not know how Munich is spelled in German,” he said. “But the people of Munich can choose one of those spellings or another for themselves.” For New York this looked easy, he said, and “to have the rest of the world find us is second. I think the first thing is we have to take care of our own business.”

Confusingly similar domain names?

The last reason given by Donnermeyer is about existing contracts and money and perhaps it is the most important reason for the Senate. “We have a well-known trademark berlin.de,” said Donnermeyer, “with 27 million people coming to visit every month. And we would compete with our own portal if we would support .berlin.” The portal is managed by BerlinOnline, whose main owner is a large Berlin publishing house. Donnermeyer said the Senate risked damage claims if he turned to .berlin. After years of work marketing berlin.de that also gave home to citizens and industry it would not make sense to change horses, “even if the .berlin idea has some marketing charm.”

That dotBerlin still is working on the application, disregarding the Senate’s decision is “naïve,” said Donnermeyer. He called attempts to gather support from the City Parliament since “somewhat dishonest.” “We had informed dotBerlin about our decision early in 2006, but they still continued their activities,” said Donnermeyer. The money spent since - dotBerlin calculates an investment of about a million euros for the application process started in 2005 - could have been saved, according to Donnermeyer.

And the decision is final, he said. Even if parliament decided against the Senate’s decision, “we would not be bound by this,” he said. “We are obliged to save the community from financial damages.” And how would the city react if somebody else, for example one of the many other Berlins in the world that dotBerlin is in contact with, were to apply for a .berlin TLD? “I do not think people would go there. We are the Berlin that people want.”

But Johannes Lenz-Hawliczek, who is responsible for press and public relations at dotBerlin, said, “Somebody else will pick up the idea.” The company is far from giving up despite Donnermeyer’s statement, and has support from the community, he said. Board members come from national and Berlin industry, nongovernmental organisations and even competitor Denic, which manages the .de. At the parliamentary hearing every expert testified for .berlin.

The company, meanwhile, has expert studies challenging the competency of the Senate to unilaterally decide on the issue. “We still think there are misunderstandings about how a .berlin would affect berlin.de,” said Lenz-Hawliczek, eager to keep the door open for talk. “We think berlin.de would even profit.”

In fact, it is not possible for business or citizens to get their own .berlin.de domain. So far they can only get basic services such as an email address for example. The 27 million number quoted by Donnermeyer were page impressions according to official statistics and while the site was much in use for e-government services of the city, .berlin might allow second-level domains for citizens and industry.

DotBerlin now looks forward to a proposal, tabled at the city parliament, to support it after all. Germany’s national parliament already passed a resolution that welcomes a possible .berlin TLD.

In the end it is ICANN that might receive an application and be left to sort it out if it will consider a letter by local administrations, national parliaments or a “community.” For the moment, Lowenhaupt said, “we don’t know what type of approval we need.” This might be a proclamation of a mayor, or the city council, or a law. Lowenhaupt said he was aware of the possibility that somebody could have asked for another string for the city, for instance .newyork, or that somebody else may have applied for .nyc.

The city will have to decide if it wants competition and who is the best operator, he said. Lowenhaupt’s strategy in the game is simple: When officials turn their attention to the issue and to his non-profit application, he said, they just should say “yes, this is the ideal structure.”

This article has been featured here with kind permission from Intellectual Property Watch.

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