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Directing traffic to specific web addresses is the core service of the internet’s domain name system. Domain names map to internet protocol numbers, which ensure users can reach the exact websites they are looking for. This is a fundamental part of ensuring consumer trust in the internet and information found online. For this reason, parties that run the network operations of the domain name system are an integral part of the internet ecosystem.
It is important to have solid, well-provisioned companies — known as registries — as part of the multistakeholder systems that maintain the internet infrastructure’s functionality. Many of these registry companies are part of the structure that governs the policies around the domain name system through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
ICANN was created in 1998 to manage the unified naming conventions around domain names. The largest undertaking ICANN has gone through over the past 20 years has been the creation of new generic top-level domains such as .tech, .film, .pet, and .ninja and brand-specific names such as .apple, .hsbc, .ibm, .nba, .visa, and many more. The new top-level domain process took many years of work by the ICANN multistakeholder community (which is charged with building consensus policies from the ground up) through the supporting organizations and advisory committees that recommend policies to the ICANN board. These new domain extensions give consumers more choices and solidified policies around the use of domain names on the internet.
After many years of negotiations between ICANN multistakeholder participants, including governments and the technical community, ICANN has designed a new set of baseline contracts that allow competition and innovation in the domain name space and feature more security and control mechanisms. A major change in the new TLD space allows trademark and intellectual property rights holders to protect their creative works online through new protections designed to proactively and reactively protect specific names from infringement as they enter the domain name portfolio.
The new gTLD contracts ensure that registry operators of these new TLDs are using the tools created by the multistakeholder community to protect trademark and intellectual property holders’ rights through the Rights Protection Mechanism when leasing a domain name or inquiring about a potential infringer. Having more TLDs under the new contract means more companies are beholden to the protection tools created through the new TLD process, such as the Uniform Rapid Suspension system and Post-Delegation Dispute Resolution procedures that were not part of the original ICANN contracting process.
Now that the contract for .org (one of the original domain names) is up for renewal, its current parent company, Public Interest Registry, has agreed to move to the new contractual obligations. This move will bring more domain names into the legal framework that adheres to the guidance brought forward from the ICANN community’s work regarding TLD development and market growth, as it has with .tel, .mobi, .jobs, .travel, .cat, and .pro.
Increased competition and choice has been a major benefit for consumers in the TLD market. Moving the .org legacy TLD to a new TLD contractual agreement is also an opportunity to move to more market-based pricing in the domain name space and away from arbitrary price caps. As Makan Delrahim, head of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, recently stated, antitrust is there to “support reducing regulation, by encouraging competitive markets that, as a result, require less government intervention.” While ICANN is not a regulator, it has had its contracts reviewed by the DOJ’s antitrust division, which concluded that only .com had market power in the domain space.
Allowing .org and future domain names to move to market-based pricing makes sense with today’s healthy TLD market, which is populated with many choices for consumers to choose from. The .org domain name is well known as one of the first TLDs in the market available for public registration, but it still only holds 5.5 percent market share, with just over 10 million names in the .org space compared to almost 140 million domain names and 75 percent market share for .com.
As technology platforms are challenged to be more responsible for content by numerous governments, many lessons can be learned from the ICANN multistakeholder process and the maturation process of registering domain names. Today’s system has more effective best practices, guidelines, and tools to protect and take down names as part of a responsible community. Not all players in the space participate, but the responsible parties that do are well regarded for their efforts. ICANN and the ICANN community have become a central player for creating a more responsible process for the entire domain name ecosystem with registry agreements, accredited registrar agreements, registrant agreements, and an effort working toward a more responsible third-party reseller relationship.
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