After many, many years of debate and discussion, ICANN — the rather peculiar hybrid policy/technology private/public institution that manages the Internet’s naming system — has finally approved a process to open up the Internet’s list of “top-level domains” (TLDs) [Stories here and here and here give some of the details] ICANN will begin accepting applications from entities who want to operate their own TLDs — so we could well see an avalanche (.xxx, .highschoolreunions, .store, .hobbies, .dirtymovies, etc. etc. – not to mention the many hundreds of others that will now be permissible using other languages and other alphabets (Chinese, Russian, Greek, . . .) of new TLDs in the years to come.
[Note: For those of you unfamiliar with ICANN and its role in Domain Name System (DNS) management, I put together (rather well, if I do say so myself) the whole (rather astonishing) story as a chapter in my book; I’ve posted the chapter here, if you’re interested]
I’ve been around the Internet long enough so that I’ve seen some things that were given the “Historically Important” or “Next Big Thing” label that petered out to nothing (and vice versa), but this is, I think, an important development in the history of the Net. A lot of people (myself included) have been urging this on ICANN since its inception back in the late 90s; there’s no technical impediment to the proliferation of new TLDs, and it always struck me (and others) that ICANN was merely maintaining artificial scarcity in sticking close to the original list of seven TLDs (the familiar .com, .org, .edu, etc.).
The implications of this for Net architecture and searching and linking and many other Net functions may be quite profound over time – the Net might look very different in 10 or 20 years as these TLDs proliferate. So it could be important, and worthy of note by the historians of the future, for that reason alone.
And it might also be important as signalling something of a shift in the relationship between governments and Net-based non-governmental institutions (like ICANN). Elliot Noss, owner and operator of the Canadian-based domain name registrar Tucows, has some interesting thoughts on this. For a number of reasons, many governments were opposed to this move — primarily in the EU, where there were concerns about the effect of opening up TLD-space on trademark owners, who will now have to police a much larger territory to find “cyber-squatters” who are using their trademarks in their domain names — and they voiced their concerns through the GAC, ICANN’s rather shadowy “Government Advisory Committee.” There was sufficient opposition so that if ICANN were a state-based institution — an organ of the U.N., say, like the International Telecommunications Union — this action would never have gone through. That ICANN has (finally) acted may signal a shift — and possibly an important one, as Noss suggests — in the ever-delicate relationship between the Internet and the world’s governments.