ICANN debates domain gold rush

ICANN is expected to take a big step towards a massive liberalisation of the top-level domain name system, opening the doors to hundreds of competitors to .com, later this week.

The globe-trotting group today kicked off its 37th quarterly policy meeting in Nairobi, Kenya with the expectation that the so-called 'new gTLD' land grab could begin later this year.

While the choice of top-level domains has been limited for decades, the new process will allow essentially any string to be used 'to the right of the dot', at the same level as dot-com, dot-net and dot-org.

"If you want to put in dot-wine or dot-shoes or dot-television, anything to attract customers to your business, and you show us you have the capacity to run the registry, and you can beat off any competition for it, you will be able to run that registry," said ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush.

Recent estimates show ICANN is expecting up to 500 applications to run new gTLDs in the first year. Over 100 organisations have already shown an interest in strings including dot-eco, dot-berlin, dot-gay, dot-music and dot-ski. Even the Zulu tribe wants dot-zulu.

ICANN's board of directors is expected to open a 'pre-registration' process later this week. Companies will be able to mark their territory with a $55,000 application fee.

Because each application will need a review, and there's a limit at how much human bandwidth ICANN can throw at the problem, there will be a queue of domains waiting to be approved.

Some are worried that the process will create a secondary market in application trading via shell companies, with investors treating gTLDs as a gold rush opportunity similar to the dot-com gold rush of the late 1990s.

The BBC, among many others, recently complained to ICANN that 'insiders' could snap up all the good real estate before the possibility of owning a new gTLD is widely known.

"I'm not sure it's a bad thing," said Dengate Thrush, pointing out that the entry fee is high enough to deter trivial applications. "I'm not sure we're thinking of ways of trying to curtail it.

"We're not dealing with cavalier or fly-by-night operators for the most part," he said. It is expected to cost north of half a million dollars to set up a new TLD, so he expects the secondary market will not appear.

The board meeting is scheduled for Friday. Applications could open as early as the fourth quarter this year.