Amazon and Google are staking claims to large swaths of the Internet under a new system for labeling Web domains, bolstering their ability to control traffic as the Web expands beyond the realms of “.com,” “.gov” and “.org.”
The bids by those companies to acquire new domain names such as “.book,” “.shop” and “.movie” renewed fears among competitors that a powerful few will dominate the Internet marketplace of the future.
A slate of roughly 2,000 new Web suffixes, including “.app” and “.sex,” was revealed Wednesday by the nonprofit organization tasked with regulating domain names, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The group announced last year that it would take applications for new domain names to foster growth and competition online. The new domains are scheduled to go into effect next year.
“We’re standing at the cusp of a new era of online innovation,” said Rod Beckstrom, president of the group, known as ICANN.
If Internet users embrace the new domains, the companies that control them could bear considerable influence on Web traffic.
Amazon has applied to control the “.book” and “.movie” names, for example, meaning that anyone else selling those items would have to get the company’s permission to be listed within that domain.
The National Retail Federation had urged that oversight of such generic domain names be given to impartial entities rather than individual companies.
“The results for now are as potentially unfair to businesses and consumers as we feared they might be,” said Mallory Duncan, general counsel for the trade group.
For example, if a grocery store controls the “.grocery” suffix, it could theoretically exclude competitors from listing their sites there.
Duncan said consumers may not realize that the new domains are under private control and that the open competition that prevails within the “.com” realm may not exist within, say, “.grocery.”
“Consumers going to that domain may not realize that all of their shopping is being done with one company instead of a competitive market,” Duncan said.
Google was among the most prolific applicants, seeking to register 101 names at an application cost of $18.7 million. Never lacking in its quest for virtual completeness, the company is seeking to control “.mom,” “.dad” and “.kid.”
Amazon applied for 76 new names, including “.amazon” and “.zappos.”
The expansion of Web domains has the potential to make over how surfers conceive of the Internet. Until now, entities have largely broken down by type of institution: “.gov” for government agencies, “.com” for businesses and “.org” for other groups.
The new suffixes add a potentially confusing array of categories. Among the many that have been formally proposed are “.sucks,” “.rip” and “.vip.” While some might sound like jokes, the fact that the application fee for each is $185,000 tends to keep things serious.
Applicants were heavily concentrated in North America (911), Europe (675) and the Asia-Pacific region (303). There were only 17 applications from Africa, which raised questions about whether the cost of an application was too high to be equitable.
Many of the potential new domain names are being sought by multiple companies. The most popular was “.app” with 13 applications, but even “.sucks” is the prize in a three-way contest.
The applicants must first pass an initial review by ICANN. If groups competing for a domain name cannot reach an agreement among themselves, the names will be auctioned off.
ICANN said it expects the first new address to go live in 2013.
What’s not clear, however, is whether consumers will embrace any of the new names.
“It’s going to present users with a lot of new choices,” said Brian Cute, chief executive of the Public Interest Registry, which runs the “.org” domain. “If you have 50 choices of toothpaste, the average consumer is going to the brands they know. That could be the case here.”
Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, said: “It’s a matter of changing the ingrained habits of millions of people on the Web. Maybe they can do that, and maybe they can’t.”
Even so, many companies are bracing for potential changes to their business.
Advertisers have criticized ICANN’s proposal, saying their concerns were not adequately addressed during the initial review process. Advertisers and others have raised concerns that companies will have to have several defensive addresses — negative-sounding names that the company purchases to keep a rival from exploiting them — to keep counterfeiters at bay.
Beckstrom said Wednesday that ICANN has added several protective provisions, including the option for rapid takedown when brand holders feel their intellectual property may be threatened. ICANN also reserves the right to take a domain name back if there is significant abuse.
Others, however, are bracing for the giants of the Internet to seize even more power over its commerce.
“It would be wrong on so many levels for Amazon to acquire either the ‘.book’ or ‘.author’ top-level domains,” said Paul Aiken of the Author’s Guild. “Their ambitions to extend their monopoly in bookselling have long been abundantly clear, and with their cash, their technical knowledge, this could be yet another way in which they’ve extended their control over the book market. This really makes no sense.”