French whine: ‘Reconsider new web domains’

Posted on Posted in Media

Empty-champagne-bottlesYou may have read about France getting aerated about the planned launch of new generic top-level domains “.wine” and “.vin”. These new URL suffixes are alleged to present a material threat to the French wine industry and, so say the French, are likely to undermine the protected status of regions such as Champagne. Moreover, the French are deeply concerned that the pesky Americans have too much control over addresses.

In my view, France’s arguments are at best misdirected. Mme Lemaire, vous êtes vraiment manquéle point…

Misrepresentation and ‘passing off’ are problems that are already covered by international conventions and local laws governing competition, copyright and trade names. Regardless of the array of available gTLDs, if an organisation seeks to mis-sell goods or services and uses a web address as a means to facilitate such wrong-doing, there’s already a plethora of laws, regulations and arbitration bodies to oppose them. So, if you set up an ecommerce site called www.FineFrench.wine and were selling not delicious Bordeaux/Medoc etc but rather re-badged EC plonk, you’d face the wrath of various lawyers and/or enforcement agencies. What’s more, the recent spat between BskyB and Microsoft over the word “Sky” illustrates that disputes over URLs and intellectual property will come and go, regardless of what gTLDs are in play.

icannlogoFears about ICANN being too powerful are also ill founded. While ICANN is the administrative center and de facto global clearinghouse for Internet addresses, ultimate control is still maintained by the operators of the root DNS servers. These are dispersed across the world. If ICANN got too big for its boots or began to behave like lunatics, they’d be set upon pretty quickly. Sure, there is a possible scenario whereby a schism opens up among root server operators and we end up with effectively two or more internet networks. You could, perhaps, imagine Chinese and US/Western European versions being created. But while this is possible it is neither plausible nor explicable. Why would China or Russian for that matter want to mess with a single cogent network that underpins so much growth in international trade? And, even if they did, I understand that the net effect (sorry) would be largely imperceptible to the average surfer.

Finally, concerns about ICANN being too US-centric and consequently unreasonably influenced by Uncle Sam are more emotional than rational. The US Government’s tainted reputation for unwelcome online interference is certainly something we should debate. However, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have not been granted nor exerted any significant influence over ICANN in the past. What’s more, the NTIA are actively distancing themselves from the core functions of ICANN, tearing up contracts and issuing repeated statements waxing lyrical about “multi-stakeholder governance” for ICANN.

Having said all this, the French have inadvertently highlighted a major issue that I think warrants consideration and that is the question of domain strategy.

There’s a robust argument for the creation of suffixes that denote characteristics such as geography (.berlin), ethnicity (.cym) or social group (.gay). These can surely help to differentiate clearly and intuitively web services from similarly named but entirely different sites.

However, much demand for new top-level domains seems to be driven by vanity and greed rather than user experience, technical requirements or commercial necessity. What possible reason does Google have to apply for circa 50 different top level domains like “.lol” and (FFS) “.google”? Indeed, why in the name of Berners-Lee would other big brands want to apply for their own top level domain such as “.sony”, “.ibm” and “.nike”? It’s difficult to see how these are much more than the online equivalents of personalised license plates on cars.

Certainly, until we reach the inevitable point when suffixes are not required in URLs, we need to ensure that there is sufficient volume and diversity of gTLDs to meet the requirements of the market. If you launch a new company or organisation only to find that the country or .com domain for your chosen name is already taken by a bona fide user, you clearly need a suitable alternative.

So, I wouldn’t challenge the introduction of new gTLDs per se. Nor would I get too exercised about who can or should register a particular suffix. The big question is one of taxonomy, rather than authority:

Will “.wine” really help consumers to differentiate and discover more effectively? Will “.vin” actually help any businesses except those peddling registration services? In short, will such gTLD’s  improve the overall web ecosystem as it expands or just end up being largely overlooked curiosities like “.mobi,” “.museum” and “.tel”?