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Fate of dot-word bids decided by ICANN archery shoot-out

That $185,000 gTLD application rests on MILLISECOND timing

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Who should own .web? Will the internet get a .porn address? What does Google plan to do with 50 new top-level domains? Why is ICANN putting companies through an online "archery game" that requires millisecond timing?

These questions and more will be asked and answered tomorrow as domain name policy overlord ICANN reveals the details of more than 1,900 new generic top-level domain applications.

Hundreds of companies have paid ICANN an $185,000 fee and spent months, if not years, putting together business plans for their own dot-whatever domain suffixes.

But until now, their plans have been mostly kept under wraps.

That changes on Wednesday, when ICANN will release the full list of new gTLD applicants. It may also reveal large portions of the submitted paperwork, giving an insight into the proposed “innovations” that the new gTLD programme was purportedly designed to encourage.

Reveal Day, as ICANN refers to it, will be centred on a four-hour event kicking off at Kings Place in London at noon, which will be also webcast live on the domain overseer's web site.

About a thousand bids have already been announced, including hundreds from several large portfolio players. Startup Donuts Inc is behind the largest number so far: it says it has secured $100 million in funding to apply for 307 strings in conjunction with content farmer Demand Media.

ICANN calls the gTLD expansion, which follows two smaller rounds that created the likes of .biz, .travel and .xxx, “one of the most significant developments in the history of the Internet”.

But it's also expected to be one of the messiest and one of the most controversial.

What happens when worlds collide

While there are over 1,900 applications, many of those will be for the same string.

To pick one example among many, it is already known that there are at least two applicants for .lol – Google and Uniregistry, a new company formed by notable domain name investor Frank Schilling.

There are at least three known applicants for each of the gTLDs .music, .blog and .app.

As soon as ICANN reveals the public portions of these applications – confidential financial information and some sensitive technical data will be redacted – a 60-day comment period begins. This is every internet user's chance to put their oar in: if you don't like any specific application for whatever reason, you can file an informal objection at no charge.

ICANN has hired French international law expert Alain Pellet as an Independent Objector - with a $25 million budget - to scour these comments for worthy causes and file official objections on behalf of communities that believe a new gTLD will disenfranchise them.

A formal objection period, which can carry fees of roughly $10,000 a pop, begins at the same time for trademark owners, communities and governments, which is expected to be open for about seven months.

Applicants that find themselves in so-called “contention sets”, because they have applied for strings identical or confusingly similar to others, will be encouraged to work out solutions among themselves or face a potentially expensive auction.

Button mashing to sort out the deluge of applications

A more pressing concern for applicants today, however, is ICANN's hugely controversial process for splitting up the applications into three or four bunches.

The organisation decided a few years ago that its outside evaluation panels couldn't really handle more than about 500 applications at any given time, and that “batching” would be required. To sort out the order of the batches without resorting to the favoured but legally risky option of random selection, ICANN settled upon a process it calls “digital archery”.

Essentially, each applicant is asked to click a button on a web site as close to a predetermined target time as possible. The closest applicants to their target time, in milliseconds, get a more favourable position in the batches.

Don't believe us? We don't blame you - so here's a link to ICANN's page about the "game" like system.

That single click could determine the fate of many businesses. A tardy fingertip could delay approval by a year or two, delaying time-to-market, which could mean early showers for the more poorly funded applicants, or applicants that expect to compete against similar strings.

A cottage industry of “experts” has already emerged to automatically “click” the button on applicants' behalf – using software to take into account factors such as network latency – with performance-based pricing starting at about £10,000.

But many major domain name companies – including backend registry services providers such as ARI Registry Services, Neustar and Top Level Domain Holdings – have come out swinging against digital archery, saying it's unfair on applicants.

As an alternative, they propose scrapping batching altogether and replacing it with a single evaluation period that lasts twice as long, to give all applicants an equal fighting chance.

While digital archery has already commenced, calls for it to be abandoned are expected to be at the forefront of discussions at ICANN's public meeting in Prague on 24 June.

Also paying close attention on Reveal Day tomorrow will be trademark lawyers for big brand owners worried that, despite all the indications to the contrary, some applicants may have tried to cyber-squat their dot-brand addresses.

They are also concerned that competitors might have applied for a category-killer gTLD for their industry, which could prompt them to file an objection. For example, while no .search bids have been revealed yet, most observers expect Google and Microsoft, at least, to end up in a contention set to own and manage that string.

While it's a less-pressing concern – the first new gTLDs are not expected to come to market before mid-2013 – companies will also need to think about defensively registering their domains with hundreds of new suffixes. ®

Bootnote

* Kevin Murphy, the author of this article, has agreed to moderate a panel discussion during ICANN's live Reveal Day event.

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