Earlier today, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the entity that assigns web addresses to web sites and other online destinations, revealed the names of entities that had applied for a new generation of generic “top-level” domain names (“gTLDs”). What does this mean for everyday web users? Quite simply, whereas people today can surf the web using a small handful of gTLDs — such as the familiar “.com”, “.org”, “.net”, and so on — ICANN has now thrown open the doors for virtually any word to serve as a top-level domain — for instance, “.shop” or “.travel” or “.sport.”
The second biggest surprise of ICANN’s announcement today was the identity of the top applicant: Google. In fact, with a total of 97 applications, Google was the top applicant by a wide margin.
The even bigger surprise, however, was the list of terms that Google seeks to control.
Like several major brand owners, Google applied to control gTLDs associated with its own brands — such as “.android”, “.chrome”, and “.youtube”. This isn’t surprising, since brand owners have a legitimate interest in making sure others don’t misuse their brands. What shocked many observers, however, was the large number of truly generic terms that Google seeks to register and control. These are terms covering vast sectors of the economy and in which literally thousands of entities might have an interest — including such everyday terms as “”.baby.”, “.book”, “.buy”, “.dad”, “.eat”, “.film”, “.free”, .”store”, and “.web” — and dozens more.
Even more chilling, however, is Google’s attempt to control terms relating to sectors in which it has monopoly power or has been accused of breaking the law in order to gain such power — terms such as “.search”, “.ad”, “.fly”, “.book”, “.map”, and others. If, as many allege, Google already seeks to stifle competition by rival search engines and online ad networks, how might competition be affected if these rivals need to apply to Google for register a site under the “.search” or “.ad” domain? Google was forced to make several concessions recently to the U.S. Department of Justice in order to allay concerns that its purchase of ITA Software might thwart competition by online travel services. Will competitors in online travel now be at Google’s mercy when seeking to register a site under the “.fly” domain? Book authors the world over claim that Google illegally copied their books and are seeking millions in compensation. Will these authors now need to seek Google’s permission to register their websites under the “.book” domain?
As real as these concerns are, the true impact of Google’s Internet domain name grab might be even more pernicious. One possible outcome of these new gTLDs is that they become the signposts users rely on to navigate the web. If that happens, Google’s control over so many fundamental generic terms could give it the ability to influence what people see online and to steer users to Google’s own products and services and away from competitors.
Another possibility, however, is that the plethora of new gTLDs leads to widespread confusion as Web users no longer can keep track of where their favorite web sites can be found. If that happens, users will be more dependent than ever on search engines — which means more dependent than ever on Google.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: Not long ago, Vint Cerf, a widely respected former ICANN Board Member and today Google’s own “Chief Internet Evangelist,” was asked what he thought of ICANN’s proposal to expand the number of gTLDs. Cerf said he was “nervous” about the proposal, noting the added costs it would impose on companies to police their brands and the potential for consumer confusion. But one beneficiary he did identify was Google — on the ground that users would become even more reliant than they are today on search engines to find the sites they are looking for.
At a time when Google is being investigated for serious violations of competition law in Europe and across the world, its Internet land grab should raise red flags for consumers and businesses everywhere. Indeed, as a company that regularly wraps itself in the flag of the open Internet, Google should recognize the validity of these concerns better than anyone. Google should do the right thing and renounce all of its gTLD applications except for those associated with its own brands.
The ICOMP Secretariat