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Proliferation or pollution of domains?

In two years, cities, trademarks and groups will be able to claim their names on the internet

The Agency ICANN, which manages internet domains, has just approved a new policy that will substantially modify the system of addresses on the internet. Currently, there are 22 generic domains (.com, .edu, etc.) and 250 country-specific ones (.es for Spain, etc.). In January, a new registration criterion will be applied, allowing the introduction ? if the registry offices administer it with due diligence ? of some 1,000 new domains yearly, starting in 2013. Any company, trademark, town or group may then opt to have its own first-level domain on the 'net.

With this move, ICANN has demonstrated its independence from national governments, some of which had expressed their doubts about the desirability of this opening up of the toponymy of the internet. And there was no lack of reasons for their taking this line.

The first apprehension suggested by the announcement is how to prevent chaos in the approval process of a new domain registry.

In the case of cities, for example, country capitals should clearly not have to argue with any other city, though it bears the same name, about their right to have a domain of their own. But in the world there are many cities that bear the same name, none of them being capitals of a national state.

Which one of these has greater legitimacy or authority to register as its own the domain that recognizes it on the internet? ICANN has been talking somewhat vaguely about initiating a process of negotiation between cities that express interest in registering domains of their own.

The parties most satisfied by the measure are the agency itself and the registering firms, which will see an upsurge in their billing ? because these new domains are far from cheap. Initial registration costs 104,638 euros, and the annual renewal, 14,000 euros. ICANN justified the move in almost poetic terms, saying that it opens up unlimited possibilities to the human imagination.

Perhaps too many possibilities. It will, for example, oblige many companies to make defensive registrations, to prevent "cyber-squatting." And the existence of domains that very clearly determine the sort of information they contain will facilitate censorship practices. Would China not immediately block a domain that was called .tibet?

This possibility was already clear to the pornography industry when it unsuccessfully opposed the introduction of the domain .xxx, which, insofar as it does tend to keep pornographic content within a single domain, allows for easy censorship without the need to separately search out and prosecute scattered contents.

The measure also raises apprehensions of a disturbing proliferation, indeed pollution, of domains that would fragment and confuse the process of surfing the internet. We can only hope that the new system, as it emerges, will be administered in such a way as to prevent this from happening.