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What is ICANN?
May 25, 2004
You may recognize ICANN as the acronym for the International Organization for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN, found on the Internet at ICANN.org, is the non-profit organization charged with the regulation of commerce involving domains, domain names, and the security of the Domain Names System (DNS). It accredits domain name registrars, and administers the generic top-level domains (gTLDs).
In the Beginning
The gTLDs are extensions that do not belong in the country code category (ccTLDs), and include the most common extensions found on the World Wide Web. When this all started in 1985, there were only 6 gTLDs:
Although they were intended to be used to distinguish commercial enterprises (.com), network providers (.net), and other organizations, including political parties and non-profits (.org), as well as educational institutions (.edu), branches of government (.gov), and the (.mil), the three that were more open—.com, .net, and .org—were pretty much used by whoever wanted to, with .com being the favorite.
Seven new TLDs were introduced in 2004:
Since then, .asia and .mobi have been added, and .tel is due to go live by the third quarter of 2008, bringing the total to 15 (16 counting .tel) gTLDs. Domain names with these extensions are registered by the ICANN-accredited registrars and their resellers.
The New TLDs
But now, as of June, 2008, something new is happening. On June 26, 2008, ICANN approved a major change to the domain name system. New rules put in place by ICANN at a meeting in Paris make it possible for any organization, company, or country to apply to have a new top-level domain of their choice created. In addition, the new domains can use scripts other than Roman characters. This affects the ccTLDs as well, because now countries would be able to have their domain name extension in their own alphabet.
What Does This Mean?
Opinion is divided on whether this is a good thing. Obviously, officials from ICANN believe that they are offering a boon. Others are not so sure. Criticisms have focused on the lawsuits that are likely to result from multiple parties desiring the same extension, as well as the confusion that hundreds or even more extensions are likely to cause users. Faced with .com/.net/.org as the main choices for a site extension, even if you couldn't remember which certainty which one it was, you didn't have to look very far to find it. But with they sky (and people's imaginations) being the only limit, some experts expect web use to become far more complicated, messy, and frustrating.
Whether the auction technique will be fair remains to be seen. With prices estimated to start in the low six figures, small businesses with regional use of a name may have little chance against a corporate giant who is better funded. Another difficulty people will face is being able to tell legitimate sites from spammers and phishing attempts. If there are hundreds of gTLDs, discerning the real from the phony becomes very difficult indeed. ICANN is holding a public review process to speak to these and other issues.
What This Means to You
Right now, it's difficult to forecast what will happen down the road. But someday, if you run a business in New York City or Berlin, you may be able to register a domain name ending in .nyc or .berlin. In the meantime, if domain names are an important part of your business, keep your eyes peeled for ICANN news. The next few years should be very interesting . . .
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