The introduction of generic top-level domains (TLDs) could wreak havoc across the internet if they are not implemented carefully and with suitable regulations in place to help minimise the risk of abuse, according to a new report.
TLDs, such as .com and .co.uk, are limited and tightly controlled, but new plans by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) mean that from early next year, anyone with sufficient cash and infrastructure can create their own generic TLD. This could be anything from a geographic reference such as .london, to a general concept such as .hotel, or even something completely random.
The report by research firm The Future Laboratory, on behalf of European domain registrar Gandi.net, said that most internet users do not believe that the liberalisation will have any discernable benefit to their online experience, and the majority believe it will lead to pointless domains, making the internet more complex, messy and confusing.
Further questions remain over who should govern these new generic TLDs. User and enterprise opinion is split between Icann, governments, registrars and public bodies.
The report highlighted issues around intellectual property and brand names being used by others, and also raised the issue of contentious domains such as .god, .war or .sex.
"Consumers and businesses alike are confused and worried," said Tom Savigar, strategy and insight director at The Future Laboratory.
"There is no clear sense of who is in charge at the moment, and who should be in charge going forward. As a result, the liberalisation of domain names, which is meant to encourage greater choice and diversity, is seen instead as being a daunting change to the internet."
Religious leaders have expressed dismay at the prospect of religion-themed TLDs. Vatican representative Monsignor Carlo Maria Polvani said in an open letter to Icann that the domains would provoke "bitter disputes", and force Icann into "giving a particular group or specific organisation the legitimacy to represent a given religious tradition".
Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Information, Society and Media, urged Icann last month to sever its US government links, and assert itself as an independent judicial body. She called for Icann to become an impartial "G12 for internet governance".
"It is not defendable that the government department of only one country has oversight of an internet function which is used by hundreds of millions of people in countries all over the world," she said.
Other organisations such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation and online brand protection firm MarkMonitor have expressed concerns over the move, warning that it could open the floodgates for increased online criminal behaviour, as well as cause widespread confusion for users.
"The industry needs to grow up and take responsibility for itself," said Joe White, chief operating officer of Gandi.net.
"In the past it's been a bit like the Wild West, but the line between our online and offline worlds is blurring, and there needs to be greater transparency. The current plans for liberalisation reflect a great opportunity to get the domain space in order."
White believes that the move could actually initiate a clear-up of the internet, but that it is imperative for Icann to set clear guidelines and a high standard of practice when it comes to implementing the new generic TLDs.
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