The impending sanction of generic Top-Level Domains by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers poses serious questions on equity and competition. The importance of domain names to digital commerce cannot be overstated, and the power of the .com or .net is well understood. What Icann proposes to do is to add several hundred gTLDs, starting next year, including those that encompass a wide range of activity in the creative arts, publishing, lifestyle and even community activities. Any entity that is assigned a domain becomes the equivalent of a landlord in cyberspace, with the ability to extract rent from other users. Such control may not pose problems where corporates such as Google are assigned domains that are specific to their companies or brands, .google or .android, for instance. But giving companies monopolistic control over generic words such as .book, .site, .news, .beauty or .app even through an auction process would distort the openness that characterises the Internet. A more equitable arrangement would be to keep such resources accessible in a non-discriminatory way. It is such a broad open culture pioneered by Tim Berners-Lee and others that aided the growth of the Internet in the first place, and not one that narrowly focused on profits.

Internet gTLDs are affected by the digital divide, as the pattern of applications with Icann indicates. Most are from the developed world, and North America dominates; Africa is at a disadvantage due to the complexity and cost. Not many have the resources to pay the $ 185,000 fee for registration and the hardware and infrastructure necessary to run the domain. Even the concessional fee for public interest applicants in the ‘supported’ category remains too steep for most organisations. Governments in such countries could consider aiding national corporations, cities and public institutions to acquire the gTLDs that are of domestic concern. This can prevent monopolies. Equally important is the possibility of fraud. Unless Icann can credibly ascertain ownership of a top level domain, it could be hijacked and used to commit online fraud. Clearly, the more contentious issue is that of domains that are truly generic, such as .book. They require some anti-monopoly safeguards, such as a “no refusal” clause to be incorporated into the registration to protect the interests of all players in the field. In general, a set of predictable consequences for anti-competitive practices should be worth considering for inclusion. More so, since Icann has the stated objective of promoting competition in the gTLD scheme. Where there are credible objections to the distribution of important domain names, Icann would do well not to award them in haste.

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