dnodConsider the case of Mikasa v. Mikasa. One makes fine crystal and china. The other makes fine soccer balls and sports equipment. Although the two unrelated companies share a brand name and a geographic region, they’ve coexisted peacefully. After all, there’s little chance that a customer will mistakenly buy a soccer ball to place on the dinner table or accidentally kick a fine goblet past the outstretched arms of a goalie. But now, both companies want to be on the Internet as mikasa.com. And on the Internet the chance for confusion is high. It’s easy to conceive of a customer shopping electronically for porcelain and typing www.mikasa.com, only to be surprised by an offering of baggy shorts and odd spheroids. The reverse could happen too.

In a lawyer-free world, the logical compromise would be for one company to become www.mikasachina.com and the other, www.mikasasoccer.com. In the real world, however, the two companies sued each other and anyone else remotely connected to the dispute,

The Mikasa conflict is played out hundreds of times each month, as giant corporations, small businesses, home offices, and individuals vie for the rapidly dwindling supply of Internet domain names. The largest top-level domain, .com, which stands for commercial, has been picked over more thoroughly than a bargain table at www.filenesbasement.com. Who gets www.united.com? United Air Lines? United Van Lines? United Technologies? As it turns out, nobody gets it, because everyone’s fighting over it.

Even if you were smart and quick and staked out a clever domain name for your small business before anyone else could even think of that name, you’re vulnerable to reverse hijackings. One programmer, for example, named his tiny domain after his son, Ty. Later, when Ty Inc. (a big company that makes plush toys) discovered the Internet, it decided it wanted www.ty.com. So it hired a fancy law firm and sued, arguing that the programmer had infringed Ty Inc.’s trademark. Because the programmer had somehow neglected to trademark his son, he had to hire a lawyer just to keep from having his e-mail shut off. Visit www.ty.com today, and you’ll see a big red heart, a teddy bear, and a note from Ty Inc.’s lawyers threatening to sue anyone who even looks at the page the wrong way.

Not many small businesses have the time, money, or energy needed to fight the powerful law firms employed by the big corporations who weren’t smart enough to discover the Internet soon enough. Sure, you can sell the rights to your domain name, but what if you don’t want to? What if the corporations offer only a token payment, not enough to justify the time, effort, and expense of reprinting stationery and notifying the world of your new Web address?

Everyone agrees this is a major problem. In an attempt to fix it, the best brains of the Internet–in the form of the Internet International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC), a consortium of international organizations that set technical standards for the Internet–have proposed a solution.

The IAHC suggests going beyond the current batch of domains (.com, .org, .edu, .net, .gov, and .mil.) and adding seven new generic top-level domains: .firm (for businesses or firms), .store (for businesses offering retail goods), .web (for entities related to the World Wide Web), .arts (for cultural and entertainment entities), .rec (for recreation and entertainment entities), .info (for news and information services), and .nora (for just plain folks who want domains in their own names).

Eventually, the IAHC plans to add as many as 100 new top-level domains. One can imagine .rel for churches and religious groups, .law for lawyers, .fin for banks and brokerages, .tel for telephone companies, .food for restaurants and groceries, .porn for pornographers, and so forth.

But wait–there’s more! The IAHC recognizes that the Web is a global phenomenon, and that it’s unfair for all countries to have to apply to Virginia-based Network Solutions Inc., which now has a monopoly on granting .com domain names.

So the IAHC also proposes establishing as many as 28 domain name registrars around the world, four in each of seven global regions. Under this plan, these registrars would work cooperatively to build a planetwide directory of unique Internet addresses. This means that many businesses in the United States would have to add us to their addresses, to identify them as American. Most countries other than the United States already add a country identifier. The logical extension is that we will soon have regional identifiers, like us.ne (for northeast) or us.sw (for southwest), to separate acme.firm in Phoenix from acme.firm in Boston.

If the Internet community embraces the proposal, domain names will soon get much more complex in the name of simplicity. Consumers will have no more chance of intuitively guessing an Internet address than they have today. (Is that yourbiz.com? yourbiz.info? yourbiz.firm? yourbiz.firm.us?)

What’s more, every individual and company who didn’t get the .com domain he, she, or it wanted will be gunning for the ideal name under one of the new top-level domains. And everyone who was smart or lucky enough to get the .com domain he, she, or it wanted will be trying to protect it by registering for alternative domains in multiple registration regions.

The newly designated registrars are not going to do this for free, so you can expect to pay $100 or more each for names in multiple domains every two years. That’s chicken feed for a multinational corporation but a painful and perhaps prohibitive expense for a small business.

The goals of the new policy are to relieve congestion in the .com domain and to avoid trademark disputes. It appears the IAHC has found a solution that has the potential to be worse than the original problem. Honestly, I can’t think of a better solution that will be fair to everyone. But anything that unfairly allows big businesses to bully small businesses is antithetical to the spirit of the Internet and must be modified.

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