New top-level domains promise descriptive names
Start-up Alternic challenges InterNIC's monopoly
Until now, if you have wanted a new name, you have been limited to what is available in a few top-level domains (TLDs) such as .com, .org, .net, .gov, .edu, .mil or one of the national extensions such as .uk. There are efforts underway, however, to create alternative domain name server (DNS) extensions so that companies can differentiate themselves even more. One company, Alternic Inc., has created the Alternic, which allows you to register for alternate DNS extensions today. However, at this point, it is an experimental system, and people can only find your site if they are connected to an alternate DNS server. (2,700 words including one sidebar)
A variety of domain name extensions or Internet Top-Level Domains (TLDs) have sprung up recently. If you sell toll-free telephone numbers use .800, if you sell cars, use .auto, and if you sate sexual appetites you could name your site something.xxx or fun.sex. Even established publishing groups are getting their own names. Wired magazine reserved .wired and IDG's affiliate in Europe has reserved .idg (How would you like to see www.sunworld.idg?)
Since 1993, registrations for names in all top-level domains including .com, .org, and .net have been handled by a private company, Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) of Herndon, VA, for the National Science Foundation's Internet Network Information Center (InterNIC) project.
Although the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has been exploring the issue of alternative DNS extensions for some time, the IETF has not acted, leaving the door open for Alternic. Users who just want to experiment can order domain names with the .lnx and .exp extensions for free.
For a registration cost of $50 and $24 a year, you can register for a name under .med, .xxx and .ltd TLDs. If you want to establish your own top-level domain, you can pay Alternic the same $50 to register and $24 a year for each name under the new top-level domain. You can transfer your name to someone else for $25.
The Alternic even makes it possible to start a business selling new domain names from a registry. For a $1,200 setup fee plus an annual maintenance fee of $1,200, you too can be a domain god. Go to the Alternic registration form to register. (See the Resources section at the end of this article for a list of relevant URLs.)
If you are one of the bold ones to get a new name, there is the small problem of making it accessible to everyone. At this point, the Alternic is a fringe agency, which is not tied in directly to the standard DNS system the Internet relies on.
The simplest way to give people dial-up access to alternate TLDs is to have the ISP reference one of the following Alternic DNS servers in their TCP/IP connectivity software:
ARAGORN.ALTERNIC.NET 22.214.171.124 (Bremerton, WA, USA) ROOT-NS.MCS.NET 126.96.36.199 (Chicago, IL, USA) EEK.HTTPD.COM 188.8.131.52 (Seattle, WA, USA) SIMBA.AGN.NET 184.108.40.206 (Detroit, MI, USA) MX.ALTERNIC.NET 220.127.116.11 (Bremerton, WA, USA) CTHULU.MCS.NET 18.104.22.168 (Chicago, IL, USA)
Alternatively, if you run the DNS server for your organization you can download the alternate list of TLDs for use on your DNS server which is now about 67 kilobytes long. (If you want it updated on a regular basis you can download the Perl script referred to in the Resources section below.)
Although the Alternic may be a grand experiment, there are others who feel that it is more of a rogue operation that will only lead to a big mess. Jon Postel, director of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), told SunWorld Online, "It will lead to chaos."
Postel has proposed a multiple-registries approach that would create more top-level domains. His plan will be coordinated through the Internet Engineering Task Force by the IANA. IANA is forming an "ad hoc committee" to process applications for new registries. Members of the committee will be appointed by the IANA, the president of the Internet Society, and the chair of the Internet Architecture Board.
The committee will produce final specification for the applications. By early October, Postel hopes to announce the specification and begin accepting applications for companies that want to run top-level domain registries. The applications will be reviewed by committee at the end of November, and should be selected by early January. By the end of January, they could begin selling domain names.
In his proposal on new TLDs, Postel said that it is considered undesirable to have enormous numbers (on the order of 100,000) of TLDs due to the difficulties in managing them and the unreasonable burdens it would put on the IANA. Postel said it could select as many as two dozen registries in the U.S. and more around the world. The names it will assign has not been decided yet. Companies that apply to be a domain register will each apply for up to three names they want to manage, and the final selection of names will be sorted out by the ad hoc committee.
Supporters of the Postel draft say competition in the top-level domain registration business will benefit the Net.
"Competition is good. Period. It generally lowers prices, it gives better service, and that's one of the objectives," said Don Heath, president of the Internet Society (ISOC). "The Internet is so much bigger than .com or .net. This will facilitate growth."
Caution: Lawsuits ahead
While his draft does not actively address the deepening legal quagmire involving domain names and trademark rights, Postel has said the existence of business-related domains beyond .com could help avoid costly disputes and lawsuits by companies claiming infringement. (See the sidebar for a recently filed trademark-related lawsuit involving an ISP and a plumbing manufacturer.)
Critics of Postel's plan say that, at best, it naively ignores trademark issues and, at worst, would exacerbate them by introducing more points of conflict.
"Say there are three or four other top-level domain registries that start registering trademarked names. Instead of having one conflagration, you're going to have several," said Tony Rutkowski, vice president for Internet business development at General Magic Inc. of Sunnyvale, CA, and former executive director of ISOC, in an interview with Network World magazine.
Rutkowski presented his own proposal at a recent Internet management conference in Boston, urging the merger of InterNIC and IANA into a nonprofit, narrowly tailored international body that would devise necessary procedures and domain name dispute resolution mechanisms.
Karl Denninger, president of Macro Computer Solutions Inc. in Chicago, which is currently hosting the Alternic, said that the current domain name system can scale beyond 400,000 domain names without problems. This is because, today, all of the domain names under the .com, .org, and .net hierarchies regulated by the InterNIC are currently set up as root top-level domains in the DNS system. In other words, a domain name like sunworld.com is set up as a root-level domain just as if it were the .sunworld TLD. Consequently, the DNS system could easily support as many top-level domains as there are domain names in the .com, .net, and .org hierarchies today.
In Postel's plan, this whole operation will be financed by the registries, who in turn, will charge what they want to organizations that want a domain name with the top-level domain run by the registry. Under the current proposal, each registry will pay a fixed fee of $2,000 a year plus 2 percent of the income from registrations into a fund managed by the Internet Society. This money will go towards the Internet infrastructure of such things as maintaining the root servers.
Denninger does not mind paying someone to manage the whole process. But he wonders what right a small organization like the IANA has to take a public resource like the name space and tax a percentage of registry revenues. Instead all of the costs should be transaction-based and represent the costs of the coordinator.
Rutkowski and other critics question IANA's authority to arbitrarily revise the Domain Name Service (DNS).
Robert Shaw, adviser on global information infrastructure for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, said the "legal foundation for a group like IANA to do this is a house of cards."
IANA's trustee role in the Internet community will not help the group withstand pressure from litigious corporations that do not care for Postel's plan. "The problem is that registries are a multimillion-dollar business," Shaw said. "Someone will challenge this." Shaw, therefore, proposed a way to capitalize on the increasing market value of prestigious domains. "You could generate a tremendous amount of revenue by auctioning off top-level domains," he said.
"We don't believe the IANA has the authority to do what they are doing. This resource was developed with federal government money. What these guys are doing is the equivalent of cutting out squares of grass and selling it for $10 each. The top-level domain space does not belong to the IANA so it does not have any more authority to impose taxes than I do. These folks are attempting to derive a million dollars a year (conservatively) from what I would consider is public property," Denninger said.
Denninger fears that if people let the IANA get away with this, it will not stop here. At the moment, the IANA coordinates IP addresses in addition to TLDs, and if it succeeds in taxing TLDs, it will have established a precedent for taxing other Internet resources like the IP space as well.
Denninger argues that if it is going to start charging taxes, it should start off by charging Network Computing Inc., which runs the InterNIC. If it does not, how can there be fair competition in the domain name registry business if one company gets to run the service cheaper than others? To Denninger, this smacks of anti-trust violations.
Furthermore, Denninger said the IANA has been indirectly supporting NSI in robbing U.S. tax payers by not running its own root-level domain name servers. At the moment all of the root domain servers carry the .org, .com, and .net extensions, whereas they should only carry a pointer to an InterNIC server that has these. But the InterNIC, despite all of its revenues, has not set up a single server of its own. Instead, two of these servers are run by the military, two by universities, and the rest are run by commercial entities such as ISPs. Before an open market for DNS registries can exist, Denninger believes the InterNIC should pay for all of its own servers to take some pressure off the root servers and to level the playing field of domain registries by carrying its own costs like everyone else.
`Rhonda McDonald's millions served'
New TLDs promise to simplify the trademark disputes on the Internet right now. Already a number of court cases have arisen from companies suing each other for trademark infringement for using domain names which have been trademarked. For example, McDonald's the fast food restaurant could have www.mcdonalds.biz, and it would never get confused at "Rhonda McDonald's Sexy Hunks Site" at www.mcdonalds.xxx.
Denninger points out that these new extensions could help solve a problem that has been riddling the Internet: how to hide pornography from kids, without infringing on the rights of adults. With a .xxx TLD in place, adult content companies could protect themselves against prosecution for distributing adult content under a .xxx extension because it would easy to program filters into browsers that reject .xxx pages.
Of course, having more domain names could also make it more difficult for people to remember addresses. Today you can often find a site by putting one word into your Netscape browser (i.e., sun) to pull up the Sun Microsystems home page. But when there are dozens of popular extensions, people may be more inclined to forget the whole name.
For those that are eager to get a new domain name extension, there is a question of whether you sign up for one now, which may not work in the future, or whether you wait for the registries to be formed. The domain names you sign up for now with the Alternic will work today, but what will happen when the IANA group decides to give registry authority away to someone else for the same TLDs? Will you have to pay someone else a registration fee to keep the site? Or even worse, what will if two companies apply for the same domain name with different registries? When people try and access them using the IANA-sanctioned DNS servers they will get one set of pages, and if they try and access it using the Alternic-compatible DNS servers they will get another set of pages.
Denninger thinks this will never happen. Once a company has staked out a domain name, it will have some kind of a legal right to it, and it can protect that right in court. Besides if two companies started selling the same domain name extensions, in the end both would suffer, so simple self interest will prevent two companies from distributing the same extension.
A big question is how will these domain names get into the popular name space. At the moment, the Alternic's alternate domain extensions are not registered in the root domain servers. The only way for individuals to connect to it is to change their DNS server, or to petition their ISP to carry the Alternic TLD on their system.
"If you are a customer that is not getting these enhanced names, the right thing to do is get on the phone to the technical support desk and tell them you want these supported," Denninger said. "If they refuse, you can say that other ISP providers already do and if the customer wants them he can go elsewhere. We think there are some very compelling reasons you would want this to succeed."
One panelist at the Boston conference warned that efforts to sustain any kind of DNS as a 'Net directory invited perpetual legal problems.
"We're putting ourselves into the middle of a fight we don't need to be in," said Scott Bradner, a consultant with Harvard University's Office of Information Technology. "The longer we continue to go along on this tack that the DNS is the answer, the more fun the lawyers are going to have." Bradner said the DNS should be "replaced with a good directory service."
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American Standard, a bathroom fixtures manufacturer in New York, has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the owner of an Internet service provider who registered americanstandard.com as a domain name.
In what could end up being a precedent-setting case, a U.S. District Court judge in Illinois last week ordered Dennis Toeppen, owner of Net66, based in Champaign, IL, to refrain from using the domain name pending outcome of the trial. Toeppen voluntarily relinquished the domain name to American Standard since he couldn't use it until the trademark question is settled, his attorney, Joseph Murphy, told the IDG News Service.
Under policies set by Network Solutions Inc., the company that distributes domain names, use of a domain name is put on hold if the owner of a federal trademark registration contests the ownership of a domain name that corresponds to that trademark.
Toeppen, who has paid $100 each for registering more than 100 domain names, asked American Standard to pay him $15,000 when the company called him to challenge ownership.
"I don't disagree that normal trademark laws apply," said Murphy. "The real question is whether the normal trademark laws say a domain address is equal to a trademark."
Murphy likened the situation to that involving vanity phone numbers that spell out a name.
"It's an address," he said. "It's different from using a name to promote a product, which is what a trademark is."
Calls to American Standard and the company's counsel were not returned. --Elinor Mills, IDG News Service San Francisco Bureau
About the author
George Lawton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a computer and telecommunications consultant based in Brisbane, CA. You can visit his home page at http://www.best.com/~glawton/glawton/. Reach George at email@example.com.