- New gTLD database
A Very American Revolution
by .Nxt | 20 Jun 2012 |
Applications for new Internet extensions make it clear that change is coming, albeit wrapped in the Stars & Stripes
The Internet of tomorrow is here, US-style
At the launch of hundreds of new extensions to the Internet last week, the head of the organization overseeing the process was embarrassed when an audience member pointed out that all the Arabic names appearing on a screen behind him were written backwards.
The CEO, an American, immediately apologized. As did his head of communications, also American. She further pointed out that the incorrect names had been noticed before the event but there hadn't been time to change them, so they went ahead with the wrong versions.
As analogies go, this exchange describes perfectly the seven-year process to create new generic top-level domains, and its end results. With the information finally published, it seems that this is to be a very American revolution.
Of 1,930 applications, a staggering 844 of them - 44 percent - come from the United States. In second place comes the Cayman Islands, but only because the country is being used a tax base by two more American companies, applying for 91 extensions between them. Third comes Luxembourg with 85, through which US online retail giant Amazon is filtering its 76 applications.
The dominance of one country and culture is equally highlighted in what didn't happen. Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) enable whole Internet address to appear for the first time solely in a particular script, for example Arabic or Chinese or Hindi. The new gTLD program expansion represented an unprecedented opportunity to make the network truly global and yet the results were disappointing: just 116 applications - 6 percent of the total - were IDNs and of them 37 were American companies expanding their trademarks into emerging Asian markets.
Perhaps the biggest symbol of the disparity can be seen from a map of applications (see below). Africa is almost entirely dark, as are large swathes of Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. Never has the "digital divide" between the online haves and have-nots been more clearly illustrated.
Uncle Sam in command
The dominance of the US is the result of two things: Internet history and the country's famous go-getting culture.
Devised initially as a special project by the US Defense Department, the Internet has its roots in America; and they run deep. The US government still controls the Internet's main directory through a contract; 10 of the 13 root servers are run by US entities; and almost all the world's largest Internet infrastructure companies can be found within a 50-mile radius of Washington DC.
This infrastructural dominance has been carried over to the new Internet extensions. Due to the specialist nature of running a piece of the Internet's domain name system, the vast majority of applicants have outsourced their registry functions to existing companies. Verisign, which runs the dot-com registry as well as two of the root servers, picked up 236 contracts; Neustar, based a few miles away from Verisign in Virginia, led the field with 358 contracts.
The company that came second in terms of registry contracts is also American but is a new entrant to the market, and therein provides a clear example for why the United States continues to lead the world in online innovation.
Demand Media flipped content production on its head, first identifying which topics have high online advertising potential (typically advice and how-to guides) and then hiring people to write words and make videos that covered those topics. The company is now worth $1.3 billion and if things go according to plan, it will shortly become the world's second-largest Internet registry.
Behind 305 of the 333 registries Demand Media is planning to run is another company, although separated into 305 different companies with such names Spring Frostbite LLC or Goose North LLC. Donuts is the brainchild of two Internet infrastructure veterans who decided to go big. And in typical American fashion, investors decided to gamble over $100 million on this vision in the hope of a big payday. Fortune favors the bold.
It is the same thinking that saw the creation of Google - which has itself put in 101 applications, making it second in terms of number of applications - and Amazon, coming third with 76.
Such huge plays have started Internet tongues wagging, with many taking issue with the fact that Amazon and Google have applied for generic terms such as "mail", "music" or "search" but intend to run them for their own exclusive use. Such an approach goes against the Internet's original ideals of a free and open network, says the network's self-appointed guardians.
That's true but the approach also reflect a recent reality of "walled gardens" online, most clearly demonstrated in Facebook's self-contained world or Apple's extraordinary app model. Both companies are, of course, American.
The world may not like it, but the United States continues to lead in online innovation because it isn't afraid to take big jumps or ignore accepted wisdom.
ICANN if I want to
There is a third, less positive reason for American dominance of new Internet extensions and that is ongoing problems with the organization that wrote the application rules and ultimately decides which top-level domains are approved, ICANN.
Thanks to a series of gaffes and bad decisions, ICANN has been at the end of constant criticism for the past three years and unfortunately for all has retreated into itself. Outside of the organization's staff and Board there is also a tightly knit and highly critical "ICANN community" that gives fresh ideas little room to breathe.
And so, despite a multi-million dollar budget to spread the word about new gTLDs, broader awareness of the program came largely through trademark lawyers concerned about protecting their rights, and negative campaigning aimed at scrapping the whole idea.
The overall result has been that the almost limitless possibilities new Internet names offer have been seen by only a few, most of whom were inside the tent. With so much work to be done, and with ICANN having promised to review the impact of the new extensions before accepting any more, it is likely to be many years until the opportunity presents itself again.
Regardless, with so many new extensions all competing for space over the next two years we are going to see a radically different Internet emerge.
The ability to control entire spaces online, as well as develop new rules for the how Internet addresses are provided, should open the door to innovation in what has been a largely stagnant market.
While it is impossible to know where the next Google or Facebook will come from, the one certainty, based on the applicant information released this month, is that they will again be American.