Should Google and Amazon be allowed to control domains?


There’s been a lot written about the domain-name “land grab” that ICANN — the agency in charge of the internet’s central address system — unleashed recently, by offering companies the chance to register thousands of new top-level domains that could be used alongside the usual selection like .com and .org. While some of the suggestions are amusing, others are more troubling: Google, for example, wants the exclusive right to reserve domains such as .search and .blog for its own use, and Amazon wants to do the same with .music and .cloud. Some critics, including open-web advocate and blogging pioneer Dave Winer, think this is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed. Are they right?

Just to recap, ICANN — otherwise known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which used to be a U.S. government-funded agency but is now a non-profit managed by a variety of industry stakeholders — decided last year that it was going to add hundreds or even thousands of new “top level” domains to the system. The agency says that this is driven by a desire to open up competition in the domain-registry business, but others argue that it is a revenue grab by ICANN and others (since registrants had to pay $185,000 to file each claim and will pay monthly fees as well) and will make the internet even more complicated.

Google wants .blog and Amazon wants .book

A couple of weeks ago, ICANN released the names of the companies and individuals who had applied to register new domains — a massive laundry list that includes everything from .beer and .lol to .gay and .asian. As my colleague Jeff Roberts described at the time, two of the biggest registrants were Google and Amazon: the former applied for more than 100 domains through a subsidiary called Charleston Road Registry, and Amazon applied for more than 75. Google’s applications range from .lol and .fun to .search and .map, while Amazon has applied for .music, .book and .like, among others.

The part of these applications that raised warning flags for Winer and others was what the companies said they planned to do with them. In Google’s case, the web giant said that some of the domains — such as .lol and .fun — would be open to the public to register addresses on, but others would be closed and for use by Google properties only, including .search and blog. The .blog domain would only be for users of Google’s Blogger software, the application said:

Google will manage a process whereby users will be able to make use of unique vanity names in the gTLD; such second-level domains will only point to the Google offering.

Amazon, meanwhile, has said that all of the 76 domains it has filed an application for will be its sole property and will be used for its own purposes — in other words, not available to the general public — and that includes .cloud and .music and .book, and even .news. Although the success of the applications by Google and Amazon is not guaranteed, the terms of the ICANN auction make it sound as though no reasonable offer will be refused, in the interests of enhancing competition. But does giving Google .blog solely for its own internal use serve that purpose?

Winer and other critics of the move, including Irish blogger and domain registrar Michele Neylon, say they have no argument with either Google or Amazon — or any other company, for that matter — controlling their own domains, such as .google or .amazon or even .gmail or .kindle, since those relate to trademarks that they have as a corporation. But why should Google be allowed to single-handedly use .blog, asks Winer — who helped pioneer the medium through his Userland software:

[W]hat if the name was created by an open source community, without the financial resources to mount a challenge? I have some standing there, because I played a role in establishing blogs. How does Google get the right to capture all the goodwill generated in the word blog?

Should Google control .cloud, or Amazon .news?

Even something as seemingly innocuous as .cloud could become contentious, especially since both Google and Amazon are vying for exclusive control of the domain — and Google is expected to announce at its upcoming I/O conference that it is launching an Amazon-style cloud service, which it will presumably want to distinguish from that of its competitor. Should ICANN be giving one company or the other the exclusive right to offer companies a .cloud address? And what about .news? Controlling that could theoretically allow Amazon to convey benefits on news entities that play by its rules.

One counter-argument that some commenters have made on the discussion at Hacker News around Winer’s blog post is that domain names are becoming increasingly irrelevant, since many web users simply type a bunch of keywords into their search box or address bar (which in Google’s Chrome browser are the same thing) and then expect the search engine to figure out where they want to go. By that logic, having a .blog or .book or even .news domain isn’t really going to cause much trouble, since one domain isn’t likely to be preferred over another.

But is that really the case? Prominent Google critic Scott Cleland has argued that the web giant could easily give preferential treatment to its own .blog or .search properties over those on other domains when it comes to search, just as it gives a higher profile to its own Google+ social results as part of the somewhat contentious “Search Plus Your World” feature. Cleland goes so far as to argue that Google’s control of such domains would give anti-trust regulators even more ammunition for their ongoing investigation of the company.

Whether ICANN accepts any of the applications from Google and Amazon remains to be seen — but if it does, there will be an even bigger spotlight on what those companies plan to do with them, and whether that is in the interests of the web as a whole.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Fabio Venni and Wesley Fryer

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