Critics worry about impact of New.net domains

A start-up domain name registry offering 20 new Internet domains outside the control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has some users worried.

          A start-up domain name registry operating outside the control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) this week launched 20 new Internet domains as alternatives to .com, .net and other officially sanctioned ones. But some users and critics said New.net could do more harm than good by striking out on its own.

          Pasadena, Calif.-based New.net is offering Web site registrations for $US25 per year under its domains, which include the likes of .inc, .shop and .travel. Officials at New.net said companies and Internet users want a wider choice of domains and ICANN is taking too long to create new ones as part of its management of the official Domain Name System (DNS).

          But the start-up's move didn't sit well with Internet watchers such as David Maher, vice president of public policy for the nonprofit Internet Society in Reston, Va. Maher said he's concerned about the potential impact of companies, such as New.net, that are working outside the bounds of Marina del Rey, Calif.-based ICANN.

          "It sure as hell is going to create a lot of problems in the whole domain naming system," Maher said. With no single organisation overseeing the entire process, he said his biggest fear is that New.net and other upstart companies will independently create clashing domains, causing online "address collisions" that could leave Internet users gridlocked.

          New.net isn't the first company to set up new domains outside the existing structure maintained by ICANN -- some 500 domains have been made available by different registries. The increasing number of unofficial domains could effectively result in the development of "a separate Internet within the Internet," Maher said.

          For corporate users, the addition of New.net's domains raises the thorny question of whether companies are obligated to register domain names with the start-up in order to protect their trademarks.

          An executive at a U.S.-based manufacturer, who asked to remain anonymous because his company is still reviewing its options, said users are in a Catch-22 situation. Managers at the manufacturer don't necessarily want to buy domain names from New.net for fear of legitimizing non-ICANN domains, he said.

          But there's a danger that simply ignoring New.net will leave the door open for individuals or other companies to register trademarked names and then try to sell them back to their corporate owners for exorbitant prices, the executive added. The situation "is something that is actively being discussed" internally, he said.

          A spokeswoman for a sporting goods business who also didn't want to be identified voiced a similar concern, saying that people who try to infringe on corporate trademarks are a constant problem. New.net's addition of more domains will likely increase the magnitude of the problem for companies, she said. "We're obviously concerned, but we haven't [developed] a concrete strategy at this time," the spokeswoman added.

          As part of its announcement, New.net did say it plans to adopt the same dispute resolution policy that ICANN uses to protect trademarks and settle arguments over the ownership of domain names. That process is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, a Geneva-based United Nations entity.

          Leah Gallegos, who manages a variety of unofficial domains through a company called Atlantic Root Network Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va., didn't criticize New.net's intentions. Gallegos said she supports the addition of more Internet domains than ICANN has adopted thus far.

          But, Gallegos added, New.net is acting in the same arbitrary manner that ICANN has been criticized for by its opponents. New.net acted without the cooperation of other registries and all but two of its domains are already being offered by Atlantic Root or other companies, she said.

          Introducing more domains "is a fine idea," Gallegos said. "But they need to do it with new [domains] that don't exist."

          However, David Post, a law professor and co-founder of the ICANN watchdog group ICANNWatch.Org, said New.net is only doing what ICANN itself has been slow to do. The problem with ICANN, Post said, is that the organization has "arbitrarily" decided what top-level domains (TLD) should be part of the DNS.

          Having new domains added by an outside entity such as New.net will cause some confusion for companies and Internet users, Post acknowledged. "[But] that's the nature of the beast," he said. "There's value in having an ICANN-like thing to coordinate [the DNS], but there's a terrible cost with that, too. [ICANN officials] get to decide what we need."

          Steve Chadima, chief marketing officer at New.net, said his company stepped in to try to meet the demand for more Internet domain names. ICANN last fall approved the addition of seven new TLDs (see story), but critics argue that far more are needed. "I think ICANN has moved slowly," Chadima said. "It's kind of inherent in how they operate. They are a consensus group with no legal authority."

          Technically, New.net isn't creating new TLDs. Instead, networks of DNS servers will be used to invisibly direct Web surfers to the new domains by routing them through the company's own New.net address or through Internet service providers that have signed on to support the domains.

          Most of the existing unofficial domains aren't widely known or are inaccessible unless users change the configurations of their Web browsers. But New.net is including a new twist: Several major Internet service providers (ISPs) -- including Earthlink Inc., Excite@Home Inc. and NetZero Inc. -- have signed on to automatically direct their customers to the company's domains.

          Internet users who aren't customers of those three ISPs can get access to the domains by downloading a browser plug-in from New.net's Web site. The plug-in automatically adds a ".new.net" suffix to the end of domain names entered into a browser, the company said.

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