Key Points:

The new auDA Issues Paper considers whether direct registration of domain names at the second level under .au (eg. websitename.au) should be permitted, or whether the current policy permitting registration only at the third level (eg. websitename.com.au) should remain.

On 20 April 2015, the body responsible for Australian domain name policies,  .au Domain Administration Limited (auDA), released the 2015 Names Policy Panel Issues Paper for public comment.

What led to the Issues Paper being released?

The 2015 Names Policy Panel was established by the auDA board to review the policy framework governing the allocation and use of domain names in the.au domain space and provide recommendations to the auDA board about what changes (if any) should be made.

Under its Terms of Reference, the Panel is considering the following issues:

  • Should .au be opened up to direct second level registrations (eg. websitename.au)?  If yes, should there be any policy rules and, if so, what rules?;
  • Should the eligibility and allocation policy rules for asn.au, com.au, id.au, net.au and org.au be changed?  If yes, what changes should be made?
  • Should the policy framework relating to the reserved list and misspellings be changed?  If yes, what changes should be made?

The Issues Paper is the first of two rounds of public consultation on these issues.

The Australian Domain Name System

The top level domain is the last part of a domain name, for example, in the domain name example.com.au, the top-level domain is ".au".  The ".au" top-level domain is for Australians, that is individuals and entities who are not Australian (or not registered to trade in Australia) are not permitted to register a .au domain name.  

A second-level domain is a domain that is directly below a top-level domain.  For example, in example.com.au, ".com" is the second-level domain.  In Australia, currently there are 16 active second-level domains, such as ".com.au", ".org.au", ".edu.au" and ".gov.au".  Under existing auDA policies, each of these second level domains can only be used for a particular purpose, for example, "edu.au" is reserved for use by Australian educational entities.

Direct registrations under .au

It is not currently and it has never been possible to register a domain name directly under .au (for example, websitename.au).  Although previous auDA Panels have recommended against enabling direct registrations at the second level of .au, the current Panel is of the view that recent global developments may mean that this is an opportune time for Australia to reconsider the issue.  In particular:

  • A number of countries including Canada (.ca), France (.fr), China (.cn), Japan (.jp) and Singapore (.sg) have permitted direct registration at the second level, and in 2014 two comparable jurisdictions - the United Kingdon (.uk) and New Zealand (.nz) - have similarly made this change; and
  • More than 500 generic top-level domain names have been released into the market since 2013. This increased competition in the generic top-level domain market could erode the brand equity in the .au domain.

The Issues Paper notes that a common argument in favour of allowing direct registrations is that it will provide greater flexibility and more choice for people who want to register .au domain names.  Domain names under .au would be shorter and arguably more memorable e.g. myname.au instead of myname.com.au.  Also, individuals are not well accommodated within the current system because the requirement to have an ABN acts as a barrier for com.au/net.au registrations, and id.au is not attractive or well known.

Potential difficulties for .au registrations

The Panel acknowledges that allowing direct registrations at the second level might increase confusion and reduce clarity for internet users, at least in the initial transition period.

The Panel also notes that much of the demand would be for defensive registrations by existing registrants who feel compelled to protect their name – currently, the majority of .uk direct registrations are held by the registrant of the matching co.uk name.  The Panel is aware that widespread defensive registrations would undermine the benefits of introducing direct registrations; it would be costly and inconvenient for existing registrants, and also limit the availability of names to prospective new registrants.

However, the Issues Paper notes that the extent to which defensive registrations are required could be managed through policy rules and other remedies that are available for brand protection.

Second level domain policy rules

The Issues Paper also raises possible changes to the policies governing eligibility and allocation rules  for .asn.au, com.au, id.au, net.au and org.au domain names, including that:

  • the fixed two year licence period be changed to a variable period (eg. registrants could choose to register their domain name for 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 years);
  • the system of re-registering expired domain names be altered, to account for the rise of drop-catching services in recent years; and
  • that the second level domain eligibility criteria be made mutually exclusive, so that incorporated associations and companies do not simultaneously register in com.au, net.au, org.au and asn.au domains.

These changes are significant since the existing policies have remained largely unchanged since 1 July 2002.

The Panel considers that the Reserved List Policy, which prohibits registration of words and phrases restricted under Commonwealth legislation, and the Prohibition on Misspellings Policy, which prohibits registration of misspellings of entity personal and brand names, do not need to be changed.  However, the Panel invites comments on these policies.

What will happen from here

There are two ways in which you can comment on the Issues Paper – send a written submission or complete an online survey.

The closing date for submissions and the survey is Monday, 1 July 2015. Following this first phase of public consultation, the Panel will publish its draft recommendations for further public comment before providing a final report to the auDA board in late 2015.