Let a million top-level domains bloom

Wendy Seltzer has a great essay up today about the process by which ICANN is allocating new top-level domains (TLDs, like .com, .net, .org, and so forth). Wendy is the copyfighting civil liberties cyberlawyer who founded Chilling Effects and previously worked with me at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She's served on the ICANN board for years -- this is the US-chartered corporation that oversees the domain name system, the only really centrally governed piece of the entire Internet.

ICANN has been thrashing for years over the creation of more TLDs, like ".sex" -- the idea is to recapture the edenic glory days when all .COMs were companies, all .ORGs .EDUs were educational institutions and all .WS sites were in Western Samoa. A .sex TLD would be overseen so that only porn sites got .sex domains, and so that porn sites would be forced out of the .com/net/org spaces. This merely requires that some perfectly infallible institution be set up to rake in gigantic profits from the sex industry while accurately dividing all material on the web into "porn" and "not-porn." Simple.

Another faction has bigger ideas: they want to blow the lid off of DNS, to allow for the creation of an infinite number of TLDs. Wendy is in this faction and in "Aging the Internet Prematurely," she sets out a stirring call-to-arms for the TLD multiverse.

To trust the market, ICANN must be willing to let new TLDs fail. Instead of insisting that every new business have a 100-year plan, we should prepare the businesses and their stakeholders for contingency. Ensuring the "stable and secure operation of the Internet's unique identifier systems" should mean developing predictable responses to failure, not demanding impracticable guarantees of perpetual success. Escrow, clear consumer information, streamlined processes, and flexible responses to the expected unanticipated, can all protect the end-users better than the dubious foresight of ICANN's central regulators. These same regulators, bear in mind, didn't foresee that a five-day add-grace period would swell the ranks of domains with "tasters" gaming the loophole with ad-based parking pages.