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Publishers this month have voiced concerns that Internet retail company Amazon Inc.’s move to acquire global top-level domain names, or gTLDs, such as .book, .read and .author will result in stifling competition by giving it a dominant position in the book and ebook worlds.

Two big US publishing groups--the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP)—have joined retailer and Amazon’s arch competitor, Barnes and Noble Inc., in writing to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which is overseeing the sale of gTLDs, for the same.

While motives of lobby bodies and competitors will always be suspect, there are good reasons to believe that gTLDs have the potential to cause mayhem in cyberspace—a point raised with the US government by bodies like the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Oversight (Crido) in November 2011.

Crido wrote to the US department of commerce at the time that the Icann proposal “would unduly burden a diverse range of public and private brand holders, as they would be forced to spend ever-greater amounts of time and resources simply to protect their brands". It had added “the Icann plan would confuse consumers, increase the already unacceptable level of fraud and identity theft on the Internet, create new opportunities for Internet crime, and jeopardize cyber security".

One only has to recall the domain squatting litigations that took place after the dotcom boom in the late 1990s to empathize with Crido’s concerns.

A domain name allows users to access website of a company or an individual on the Internet by typing an address—typically a name that, in reality, masks an Internet Protocol, or IP number. The first-level set of domain names are the top-level domains (TLDs) including gTLDs (22 of which have been issued to date) such as .com, .net and .org, and country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) such as .in (for India).

Domain squatting takes place when individuals and companies block or lock in domain names to prevent competitors from using the name for business purposes, or to sell that name later at a much higher price.

The .com domain name has for long been the most-coveted generic top-level domain name (gTLD) in cyberspace, and Icann, in mid-2008, gave its go-ahead for total freedom of domain names. The US- and UK-based companies and organizations accounted for more than 80% of all applications for the new Internet address endings. While the US accounted for 935 applications, Europe filed 675, Asia-Pacific 303, and Africa 17.

Google Inc. applied for 101 gTLDs, according to the full list Icann revealed in June 2012. Amazon applied for 76 gTLDs. Between them, there’s an overlap on many domains such as .app, .book, .buy, .cloud, .dev, .drive, .game, .map, .movie, .music, .play, .search, .shop, .show, .store, and .talk.

In India, Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has applied for domain names such as .indians, .reliance and .ril; Tata Sons Ltd, .tata; and Bharti Airtel Ltd, .bharti and .airtel. Other Indian companies that want their own domain names include State Bank of India that has filed for .sbi; Tata Motors Ltd that wants .tatamotors; Dabur India Ltd (.dabur); Infosys Ltd (.infosys and .infy); Housing Development Finance Corp. Ltd (.hdfc); and HDFC Bank Ltd (.hdfcbank). The full list of applicants is available on Icann’s website.

The new top-level domain names, however, come at a price—$185,000 for the application alone and $25,000 as annual maintenance charges. Overall, a company or individual will have to shell out around 1.5 crore for the exercise—most of it as a one-time cost.

Yet, companies such as Amazon and Google are willing to shell out millions of dollars to lock in these domain names, which is stirring up a hornet’s nest in cyberspace.

Icann, on its part, is still inviting public comments on the issue. While gTLDs may be a gold mine, the resulting confusion and litigation may result in the kind of free-for-all that marked the climax of Mackenna’s Gold. A rethink is in order.

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