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The Pope has called on ICANN to keep religion out of the domain name system.

The Vatican warned the internet address-making body of the “perils” of allowing new internet domains such as “.catholic, .anglican, .orthodox, .hindu, .islam, .muslim, [and] .buddhist”.

ICANN, frequently accused of mission creep, could find itself having to decide who gets to represent an entire religion on the internet, His Holiness pointed out, in a letter from Monsignor Carlo Maria Polvani.

Religion-themed domains could provoke “bitter disputes” that would force ICANN into “recognizing to a particular group or to a specific organization the legitimacy to represent a given religious tradition,” Polvani told outgoing ICANN chief Paul Twomey.

The warning came as ICANN, meeting this week in Mexico City, kicked off the latest in its interminable series of discussions into whether and how to allow new generic top-level domains (gTLDs, in ICANN-speak) onto the internet.

Figuring out how to safely create new gTLDs was the main reason for ICANN’s creation over ten years ago. But while it managed to squeeze out a handful of “test” domains, including .info, .museum, .travel and .biz, in 2001, the organisation has been hopelessly entangled in self-imposed red tape ever since.

The current plan is for considerable liberalisation of the gTLD space, lowering the financial bar to entry and allowing potentially hundreds of new top-level domains to be launched over the next couple of years.

The Catholic Church is of course not the only interest group to stick its iron into the fire. Internet inventor Al Gore yesterday threw his weight behind a company that wants to launch a “.eco” domain for green initiatives. Gore was joined by ropey Bond, human double-entendre and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Roger Moore, who is sitting on Dot Eco’s advisory board.

ICANN’s Mexico meeting has also shown the growth of a movement supporting new city-specific gTLDs, led by German outfit dotBERLIN and including groups from New York, Paris, Hamburg, Quebec and Boston. So confident are they at getting their dot-city domains online, that they this week applied to join one of ICANN’s powerful “supporting organisations” as a fully fledged constituency on a level pegging with, for example, the companies that run .com and .org.

But while the domain name industry is dying for new products to sell, and at least some new namespaces seem to be a foregone conclusion, not everybody is clamouring for the new gTLDs. Intellectual property groups such as the International Trademark Association and powerful business interests including Microsoft, Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp have comprehensively objected to the project.

Time Warner told ICANN back in December that the 2001 round of new domains, “of most of which nearly all internet users remain entirely ignorant”, may have “padded the revenue streams of registries” but that “the typical internet user has reaped little if any benefit”.

The key objections are financial. If there are hundreds of new gTLDs, the argument goes, then companies will be forced to protect their brands in hundreds of new namespaces.

This could mean either forking over the cash to register the domain, or paying expensive lawyers to contest “cybersquatter” registrations. For companies with hundred of trademarks, the cost could easily escalate into the millions. When typos are considered, the price would rise even further. Microsoft describes its costs under the existing system of a mere 280 top-level domains as “staggering”.

Because any string could be proposed as an after-the-dot gTLD, there’s the added problems of figuring out whether “.apple” should belong to the Apple computer company or the Apple music publisher, and whether News Corp, say, could claim exclusive rights to “.news”.

The objections are not falling on deaf ears.

ICANN has now decided to delay the first round of gTLD applications by several months until as late as the first quarter of next year, while it works on an unanticipated third draft of its Applicant Guidebook, the manual which lays down the law for would-be registries. ®

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