US senators have called on web address overseer ICANN to rein in its imminent generic top-level domains programme over fears that it may lead to cybersquatting and consumer confusion.
The ICANN new gTLD programme, which will open for applications in January, came under scrutiny at a lacklustre hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Thursday.
Committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller made an appearance just long enough to read a prepared statement into the record, before dashing away on other business.
"If ICANN is determined to move forward, it should do so slowly and cautiously," Rockefeller said. "The potential for fraud, consumer confusion and cybersquatting is massive and argues for a phased-in implementation. Scaling back the initial round of new top-level domains introduced in 2013 may be a prudent approach."
Despite his caution, Rockefeller said that he believed new gTLDs could promote competition and innovation on the internet, which he supports.
From 12 January to 12 April, any organisation will be able to apply to ICANN to run essentially any string as a new gTLD, such as .hotel or .london, to compete with the likes of .com, .org and .uk.
Speaking at today's hearing, ICANN's senior vice-president of stakeholder relations Kurt Pritz said that, based on hearsay, ICANN expects to receive 500 to 1,000 applications.
But critics led by the US Association of National Advertisers think the programme, with its $185,000 application fee, is too costly, and that hundreds of new gTLDs will mean more cybersquatting, phishing and fraud.
The ANA recently formed the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Oversight (CRIDO) to fight the plan, and is widely believed to have been the impetus for Thursday's hearing.
The programme is "not merely a bad policy choice but a serious threat to the legitimate interests of businesses and consumers on the internet", ANA executive vice-president Dan Jaffe told senators.
The ANA is concerned that its members will have to waste money fighting trademark infringers in new gTLDs, and that consumers may be confused by the new addresses.
The price is not right, says not-for-profit
Angela Williams, general counsel of the YMCA of the USA, spoke out against the domain expansion at the hearing on behalf of ICANN's trademark-oriented Not-for-Profit Organisations Constituency.
She said the cost of applying for a gTLD would be excessive for the YMCA, and that ICANN should offer a discount on objection fees for non-profit organisations.
"If the Y or another NPOC member chooses not the participate in ICANN's new gTLD program, it runs the risk that another entity will apply for the use of its name or one that is confusingly similar," she said. "The costs of filing an objection are expected to be approximately $30,000 to $50,000."
ICANN's founding chairwoman Esther Dyson also railed against the expansion, calling it a "waste".
"I'm the only person here talking on behalf of the real public," she said, "not on behalf of large trademark owners, not on behalf of big businesses, not on behalf of governments, not on behalf of non-profits, but actually on behalf of the users, who I think stand to be extremely confused if there's a proliferation of new domains."
Without missing a beat, she went on to make the argument that new gTLDs will create headaches for big businesses that own trademarks: "Either marriott.com and marriott.hotel are the same, or marriott.hotel is simply redundant, or they're different, in which case it's simply confusing. It creates a profusion of new things to protect without creating any additional value."
But just think of the memor.able domain name possibilities
Supporters of new gTLDs, which were not invited to the Senate hearing, often make the case that .com is saturated, largely due to price-inflating speculation, and that new gTLDs could make it easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses to find available, memorable domain names.
Already, startups are turning to repurposed country-code extensions such as .me and .co in order to create new brands.
Of the small number of senators in attendance (four or five of the 25-member committee), most expressed the view that the internet would be better served if ICANN moved more slowly to roll out new gTLDs.
However, in Pritz's written testimony he pointed out that the new gTLD policies have been under development since 2005, and that the ANA's advice, and similar advice, was considered and used to amend the rules.
"ICANN has noted the PR campaign driven by industry groups against the New gTLD Program, and the revisionist history they present," he stated.
"The six-year inclusive policy development process that led to approval of this Program gave all sectors and industries ample opportunity to contribute their thoughts and convey their concerns. The concerns raised by this group of stakeholders were considered, debated and addressed along with those of many other stakeholders."
He went on to explain many of the trademark protection mechanisms the programme includes, which he said ICANN believes will reduce the need and/or cost for trademark enforcement, which he said is already relatively unproblematic outside of .com.
Next week, the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will also hold a hearing into ICANN's plans, the second House hearing on the subject this year. ®