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New Web suffixes spur an online land grab

Since last summer, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has initially approved 1,574 applications for new top-level domains.

ANDREW COWIE/AfP/GETTY IMAGES/File 2012

Since last summer, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has initially approved 1,574 applications for new top-level domains.

On the Web, there’s no place like .home.

But there soon may be, along with hundreds of other new Internet address suffixes like .bible, .blog, .family, .game, .gay and .pizza.

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Since last summer, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, a nonprofit that coordinates the Internet address system, has vetted and initially approved 1,574 applications for new “top-level domains” — the letters to the right of the dot. The premise is to give companies and consumers seeking secondary-level domain names — the janedoe in janedoe.com — options beyond the 22 top-level generic suffixes like .com and .biz that are currently available.

“With .com and .net, if you wanted a nice name, it’s all taken,” says Akram Atallah, the president of Icann’s division of generic domains. Icann expects to sign contracts over the next year with companies and organizations to manage the registries for the new top-level domains. The first of these could open for registrations as early as this fall. “The idea,” Atallah says, “is to provide real-estate availability in the market.”

Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. have each applied to administer dozens of new top-level domains, including .app, .book, .cloud, .game, .movie and .search. L’Oréal SA is seeking .beauty, .hair and .skin. Johnson & Johnson wants .baby. Donuts Inc., a domain registry company in Bellevue, Wash., filed the most applications, asking for 307 — including .love, .family, .health, and .plumbing. Many applicants said they hoped to use the domains as trusted hubs offering authoritative information to the public.

The proliferation of these suffixes seems fraught for both consumers and companies. It has the potential to confuse online searchers: .car or .cars? baby.toys or toys.baby? It could also prompt companies, at great expense, to register bunches of new brand sites defensively as a way to pre-empt cybersquatters, spoofers, and fraudsters.

Some technology veterans and trademark experts view the domain expansion as largely unnecessary.

“You are creating a business, like derivatives on Wall Street, that has no value,” says Esther Dyson, a technology investor who served as the founding chairwoman of Icann. “You can charge people for it, but you are contributing nothing to the happiness of humanity.”

There’s a larger issue at stake, however. Advocates of Internet freedom contend that such an expanded address system effectively places online control over powerful commercial and cultural interests in the hands of individual companies, challenging the very idea of an open Internet. Existing generic domains, like .net and .com, overseen by Verisign Inc., a domain registry, have an open-use policy; that means consumers can buy domain names ending in .com directly from retail registrars like GoDaddy. With a new crop of applicants, however, Icann initially accepted proposals for closed or restricted generic domains, a practice that could limit competing views and businesses.

“It’s a very legitimate competition concern,” says Jon Leibowitz, a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission who recently joined the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in Washington as a partner. “The public at large, consumers and businesses, would be better served by no expansion or less expansion” of domains.

In its proposal for .beauty, L’Oréal said it intended initially to reserve second-level domain names — like personal.beauty — for itself, eventually opening up the domain to its own business units, selected licensees and partners. Atallah said Icann would defer moving on certain contracts while it decides whether to allow closed generic domains.

At the end of last year, there were about 252 million domain names globally registered on the Web. Nearly half used the .com or .net suffix, according to Verisign, which manages those two suffixes and reported revenue last year of $874 million. Industry analysts say additional players in the domain market would be welcome.

“Verisign right now is like the Walmart of the domain space,” says Thies Lindenthal, a postgraduate fellow at the MIT Center for Real Estate, where he studies domain names as virtual real estate. “Other big players may be beneficial, just to increase competition.”

Icann charged a processing fee of $185,000 per domain application, but it didn’t limit the number of submissions per company. Donuts Inc. forked over nearly $57 million; it now expects to manage at least the 149 suffixes for which no other entity applied. For other suffixes, like .chat and .golf, which had multiple applicants, interested parties will have to negotiate among themselves or submit to an auction run by Icann.

Donuts plans to open all of its generic domains to public registration, each with its own pricing structure. Even professional-sounding suffixes like .architect won’t be narrowly limited to the traditional definition of licensed practitioners, says Jon Nevett, Donuts’ executive vice president for corporate affairs; after all, in addition to building architects, he says, landscape architects and software architects may wish to use to use an .architect domain name.

“We want to be as open as possible,” Nevett told me. “We don’t want to have a walled garden.”

Likewise, Charleston Road Registry, a unit of Google, has indicated on its website that it plans to open certain of its new suffixes — like .ads, .boo, .dad, and .how — to public registration. But in applications to manage other generics like .app, the company has laid out a more restrictive approach, saying it planned to employ its own criteria to assess and approve entities seeking to use those suffixes.

In June, the Association for Competitive Technology, an advocacy group representing more than 5,000 app developers, filed an objection with Icann, arguing that Google’s plan to vet developers seeking an .app domain name could curb competition. The concern, said Jonathan Zuck, president of the advocacy group, is that Google might market the .app domain to consumers as a seal of approval for certain apps, including its own, leaving a mistaken impression that apps not marketed on the domain were inferior.

“We are simply raising public-interest concerns,” Zuck says. “We’d prefer .app to be wide open, like .com.”

Google declined to comment on its application for .app. Atallah said an Icann committee was reviewing each objection.

Some wonder if Icann has considered deeply enough the larger linguistic and societal ramifications of setting off a land grab for new virtual real estate like .love or .home, says Jacqueline Lipton, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

“It’s a private body,” Professor Lipton said, “that is dabbling in this very delicate balance of commerce and expression online that is fraught with pitfalls.”

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