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UK-US corporate world slams 'dot-brand' domain plans

The Man lawyers up, gets in ICANN's grille

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Lobby groups representing a majority of US advertisers and online media companies have demanded that domain name overseer ICANN slam the brakes on its controversial new generic top-level domains programme.

Claiming the gTLD programme is "likely to cause irreparable harm and damage", the US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) set the ball rolling earlier this month when it said that it is thinking about suing ICANN to force it to abandon its plans.

The group now also has the backing of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the UK Direct Marketing Association.

Today, the Brussels-based World Advertising Federation, a meta-group that has the ANA and other associations as members, echoed the ANA's concerns in a letter to ICANN.

Combined, the five organisations count thousands of the world's best-known companies – everyone from Facebook, Microsoft and Google to Walmart, Pepsi and Kraft – among their members.

From next January, ICANN plans to allow any legitimate, well-financed organisation to apply to run a right-of-the-dot domain name, to sit alongside the likes of .com and .uk.

As well as registries grabbing potentially lucrative domains such as .web, .music and .blog, hundreds of others are expected to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to apply for so-called "dot-brand" gTLDs.

If the programme goes ahead as planned, then by 2013 – when the paperwork has been processed – you might see web addresses such as iphone.apple, johnsmith.facebook or enjoy.coke.

But according to the ANA and IAB, there's little demand for such domains in corporate America, and a great deal of fear that new gTLDs will lead to an increase in cybersquatting, phishing and fraud.

"If American industry is not supporting the recommendation to do this, then who is?" said the ANA's president, Bob Liodice. "What is the benefit if brand owners are saying they're horrified?"

The ANA's members are worried that more new extensions will mean bigger legal bills to fight off cybersquatters – those people who try to blackmail trademark holders by registering their marks as domain names.

Liodice wrote to ICANN president Rod Beckstrom in early August to demand that the new gTLD programme be "abandoned" until its concerns were dealt with.

The group plans to lobby the US Congress and Department of Commerce, which has an oversight relationship with California-based ICANN, to have its demands heard.

It may also sue, Liodice said.

In his reply, Beckstrom defended the programme and the "multi-stakeholder" policy model used to create it. He also pointed out that ICANN made substantial concessions to the trademark lobby – including the ANA – and to the national governments that had expressed similar concerns.

"ICANN supports and defends the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model that has produced carefully crafted policies that promote competition and user choice while creating a safer, more stable Domain Name System," Beckstrom wrote. "The assertions in your letter are either incorrect or problematic in several respects."

Depending on when you start counting, the new gTLD programme had been under development for between three and 13 years before it was finally rubber-stamped in June.

It's inconceivable that the ANA and the other objectors didn't see it coming, and yet both organisations participated very little in its creation, ICANN's supporters say.

Not everybody is convinced that more gTLDs will mean more cybersquatting.

At the .nxt domain name conference last week, Paul McGrady of the law firm Greenberg Traurig said he believes companies that secure their dot-brand gTLDs will see a "major decline" in cybersquatting.

"[Consumers] will not be looking for the left-hand-side of the dot," McGrady said. "When consumers are not looking for them at the left-hand- side of the dot there will not be traffic. Where there is not traffic, there is not revenue. Where there is not revenue there is not cybersquatting."

Those organisations now crying foul about the programme are also worried about the high price of applying for and owning a gTLD. It is not the same as buying a regular domain name.

ICANN's application fee starts at $185,000, but start-up costs are more likely to come in around $500,000, many observers estimate. Companies applying for a popular, contested gTLD may wind up at auction, where the outlay could exceed $20m.

But that's a drop in the ocean for many of the companies now objecting to the ICANN programme – which collectively spend $700bn a year on advertising. ®

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