King of my own (Internet) domain!

Column: The liberalization of Internet domain names will help companies, but it will also make the Web way more complicated.

Maureen Fan/San Jose Mercury News/Knight Ridder/FILE

I have a dream. I dream of a place on the Internet that is all mine. A place – OK, it is a virtual place, but that doesn’t make it any less real these days – where I get to decide who gets called what, and I can make up as many names as I like without needing to worry about stepping on someone’s digital toes.

Yes, I dream of owning my own global top-level Internet domain.

In case you've never heard of such a thing, a top-level domain is everything that comes after the final dot in an Internet address, such as .com, .biz, .org, etc. And starting next year I can buy .regan. But only if a rich relative leaves me a big chunk of change in a will.

OK, it’s a foolish dream. But the reality is that in early 2010, companies will be able to stick their own names in place of the all too common .com. So don’t be surprised if you start seeing Internet address that end in, perhaps, .walmart or .wendys or .winnebago.

But the price is not cheap. The California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees domain names, will most likely start taking applications for these new top-level domains for $185,000 per application. That means my chances of getting .regan are probably zero (unless the Monitor starts to pay me a lot more money for this column).

But there's a reason behind the enormous application fees: cybersquatters.

Cybersquatting is when someone tries to register URLs that use a trademark or celebrity's name with the intent of unfairly profiting from that name recognition. For instance, squatters might buy for a cheap price, anticipating an upcoming phone, and then try to sell that Web address to Apple at a great profit. Or they will try to piggyback on a celebrity or sports event, such as, to sell their own products. (Those were the first two made-up names that came to my head, but it turns out both of those URLs have been snatched up, but not by Apple or the MLB).

In some cases, squatters will start to write really negative things about a company on the domain in question in an attempt to force the company to buy it in order to silence them.

Cybersquatting hit new levels in 2008. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) handled 2,329 cases under its dispute procedure for Internet addresses, according to a recent report in Reuters. The BBC, Google, eBay, RIM Blackberry, Yale University, Arsenal Football Club, and Scarlett Johansson are among those who registered complaints last year.

But cybersquatting is not always a cut-and-dry situation, particularly among American business people who see cybersquatting as simply a legitimate way to make money on the Internet. (Which, it must be noted, is also the argument made by e-mail spammers.) So allowing companies to buy and control their own top-level domains is one way to deal with the cybersquatting problem – only big companies or rich individuals can afford the price tag.

Not everyone is crazy about ICANN’s plan to greatly increase the number of available domains.

"The creation of an unknowable and potentially vast number of new [top-level domains] raises significant issues for rights holders, as well as Internet users generally," WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry said in a statement to Reuters.

Meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee, one of the major forces behind creating the World Wide Web, said on Friday that the names system had become “mired in politics and commercial games.”

"It would have been interesting to look at systems that didn't involve domains," Mr. Berners-Lee said.

And you have to think that even buying a top-level domain isn’t going to stop cybersquatting. The reality is that most people can't tell the difference between a real Internet address and a complete fake one. Folks see or the old tagline and think Coke. And for most people, remembering .com is a lot easier than remembering something like .GlaxoSmithKline, for instance.

I can imagine that there will still be a lot of complaints to the WIPO.

Still, .regan would be cool. I can see URLs like BestColumnistEver.regan or TheVeryHandsomeTom.regan or ElectTom.regan.

Maybe if my kids get summer jobs.

For more on the business of buying and selling domain names, check out: What's in a (domain) name? Some serious cash.

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