To the Right of the Dot

The landscape of the Internet is set to change. At the moment, there are 21 generic top-level domains (gTLDs), such as .com, .net., .org, and several others. To date, parties looking to obtain their own Internet space could only register second-level domains within existing top-level domains, for example, “steptoe.com” or “redcross.org,” customizing only the portion of the domain to the left of the dot. The new gTLD program, however, offers a dramatic shift in that it allows organizations to register a name to the right of the dot: for example, Internet users might visit law.steptoe instead of steptoe.com. Securing a personalized Internet space to the right of the dot will potentially open many new marketing and branding avenues, as well as presenting new means of conducting business and searching for information online; however, availability of the new space also presents a host of new trademark and online brand protection issues. Registration and maintenance of such a space will also involve a lengthy and complex application and project management process, for which interested organizations are advised to begin planning as soon as possible.

This update will: (1) discuss ICANN’s recent announcement regarding its updated timeline for the rollout of the new gTLD program; (2) provide detailed information regarding the implications of the new timeline for potential new gTLD applicants; and (3) offer recommendations to organizations to ensure they are on track with their new gTLD program planning.

Announcement of New Timeline

The launch of the new gTLD program is contingent upon the ICANN Board’s approval of the Applicant Guidebook (AGB), the lengthy document that details the policies and procedures for new gTLD applicants. The ICANN Board had previously anticipated approving the current version of the AGB during the December 2010 ICANN meeting in Cartagena. However, following the expression of significant concerns by the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and other organizations regarding intellectual property issues and other program details, the ICANN Board instead scheduled an intersessional meeting in late February 2011 in Brussels with the GAC with the goal of resolving the issues and allowing the program to move forward. The ICANN Board continued its meetings with the GAC during the regularly scheduled March 2011 ICANN meeting in San Francisco, and although the AGB was not approved during the San Francisco meeting, ICANN did succeed in establishing a new timeline for the rollout of the new gTLD program.

Full Timeline for Program Launch

Based upon the concerns expressed by the GAC and other organizations, as well as public comments received on the current version of the AGB, ICANN is scheduled to prepare a new version of the AGB to be posted for comment on April 15, 2011. Following another one-month round of public comment (scheduled to be open through May 15, 2011), ICANN will post a finalized version of the AGB on May 30, 2011. The next ICANN meeting is to be held in Singapore from June 19-24, 2011; at a special session to be held on June 20, 2011, ICANN is set to give final consideration to the AGB and will likely approve the AGB as it stands on that date.

Once the AGB is approved, ICANN will initiate its mandated four-month communication campaign in order to educate potential applicants, and the Internet community as a whole, about the new gTLD program. Assuming no further delays in the process, in October 2011, ICANN is expected to begin accepting applications during a limited three-month period; no additional applications will be accepted outside of this window. Experts and insiders have estimated that ICANN may receive up to 1,000 applications during this short window.

In January 2012, once the application window has closed, ICANN will likely begin evaluating the applications submitted for new gTLDs. This review period is likely to run throughout 2012 and into 2013, and the first new gTLD registries are likely to become fully operational sometime in early 2013.

The official ICANN timeline for March 2011 through June 2011 is available at: http://icann.org/en/minutes/draft-timeline-new-gtlds-18mar11-en.pdf.

Although the new gTLD program has been subject to a number of delays, the tenor of the recent San Francisco ICANN meeting indicates that ICANN is determined to move forward according to the new timeline. ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate-Thrush has stated, “You’ll notice we have set up a special meeting early in the week so we don’t have to spend all of the week in Singapore in any kind of last-minute efforts because we want to have a party on – we want to have a resolution to celebrate.” After nearly five years of planning, the new gTLD program actually appears to be on the precipice of beginning.

Program Planning Recommendations

If the new timeline holds, the manner in which users navigate the Internet may begin to fundamentally change within the next two years. Companies and brand owners are advised to give serious consideration to their participation in this new Internet space; due to the limited application window and significant financial and other resources required, organizations that have not given this program the forethought it requires may be foreclosed from making a timely application.

Many organizations interested in the new gTLD program have been, understandably, delaying making final decisions regarding their participation in the program until ICANN announces a final schedule, with some organizations holding off on substantive planning discussions altogether. However, the final approval of the AGB, and especially the launch of the communications campaign, will likely generate a great deal of public interest in the program. At this juncture, organizations that have not yet begun planning may find themselves scrambling to secure the necessary internal resources (such as a business plan and adequate budget for the new gTLD), and may also be challenged to find external resources (such as experienced counsel and technical service providers) that still have the capacity to assist them.

Some recommended next steps to ensure adequate preparation for the new gTLD program include:

  • Create a cross-functional team of stakeholders from various departments, such as legal, marketing, and IT (and including upper management), to make recommendations and a decision regarding whether or not to participate;
  • Ensure that key decision-makers are adequately trained regarding the program, business opportunities presented by participation, and potential opportunity cost of not participating;
  • If program policies are a concern, take a final opportunity to prepare and submit comments to ICANN on the April 15 version of the AGB; and
  • Whether or not participating in the program, consider adapting budgetary and other resource needs to the new landscape of the Internet, such as allocating additional resources for enforcement.