Monday, March 11, 2013

Amazon's Domain Name Squatting Overreach...

Who should own specific top-level domain names?  We're all familiar with .com, .net, and .edu, and maybe a few country codes like .uk as well, all of which are administered by the independent institution known as ICANN.  But with decisions looming over the fate of several new top-level domain names (gTLDs), to what extent will the most well-capitalized private corporations be able to dominate the future of the Internet's domain name system?

For some context, consider this Wall Street Journal article reporting on how Amazon has recently submitted applications to ICANN to acquire new gTLDs including ".book", ".author", and ".read".  They're also trying to buy the rights to non-book-related suffixes like ".movie", ".wow", and ".app". 

Not everyone is thrilled with this prospect, as you might imagine.  Last week, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers raised their objections, and tech companies including Google, Microsoft, and Apple are objecting to Amazon's request for ".app", to name only one example, although all of these companies are vying for their own share of gTLDs as well.

Here's the debate.  Those who object to Amazon's squatting of gTLDs argue that granting ownership rights of such generic domains to single private entities is anti-competitive.  They argue that doing so would create a monopolistic environment with great potential for abuse, especially considering Amazon has already gone on record stating that they have no plans to resell any domain names using those suffixes to outside parties.

Meanwhile, Amazon (and other firms who are submitting similar requests) defend themselves by arguing that obtaining these doman names would "protect the integrity of their brand and reputation".  They point to the same system that's been used for years for adminstering conventional domain names.  Amazon's senior counsel is quoted as saying, "Why should a company be able to own '' and not '.widget'?  There is no evidence that past 'closed' domains have led to any market power".

So where do you stand?  Regardless of which argument resonates more with you personally, what this case really highlights is ICANN's flawed model for both distributing domain names and also for resolving disputes.

As The Nerfherder has complained about before, ICANN undermines its own mandate by distributing domain names, not based on principles of fairness, but solely on a "first-come-first-served" basis.  Yes, this principle might be conceived as a fair one, however, when you look at the real-life consequences of this policy - namely, the hostage-taking of domain name rights by squatters who have no intention whatsoever to even use them - then it's hard to argue that ICANN's system isn't badly in need of reform.

How ICANN resolves disputes over domain names, as is the case here with Amazon, is also problematic.  Their decision over who gets the rights to ".app", for example, will have multi-million dollar implications, and the process by which ICANN will determine the winners and losers isn't nearly transparent enough.  Who only knows how many free dinners or vacation junkets or back-room deals are influencing the decision-making process?  Maybe none; but that's the point - we'll never know.  Shedding more sunlight into the process would mitigate conspiratorial fears of corruption.

Ultimately, the narrow question over Amazon's request for very generic domain names is an economic one.  Both sides in the debate make legitimate arguments, so what's really at issue is how best to allocate resources to ensure both an innovative and competitive marketplace.  However, the more general question, as it relates to ICANN, is a normative question about values.  What type of Internet do we want to create, and what political values do we want to guide decision-making? 

That is the lens through which everyone should be interpreting these headlines.



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