Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New gTLDs: the death of (the illusion of) seredipity

On June 20, ICANN will probably ratify the new Top-Level Domain Program. In the article on the Sydney Morning Herald web site, it explains that for a limited time at the bargain price of $US185,000 anyone will be able to register "dot.anything". In other words, corporations will be able to have domains like "www.ford" or "www.macdonalds".

In the story, it touts the potential benefits of this:

"Imagine bypassing Google because you knew you could go to 'restaurants.sydney' or 'bars.sydney' and find every restaurant and bar listed on those sites. You would imagine our reliance upon Google to walk through this labyrinth is diminished"
Well, pardon me for not necessarily seeing this as a benefit. Of course, I don't weep for the future of Google, nor of any of the other tendrils of Skynet who look to suck revenue from the ether and eventually doom us to a cyborg rising. Rather I am concerned that along with the fight over net neutrality and the 1984s of national filters and firewalls, this is one more step towards the brand-driven Internet whereby corporations and governments subtly manipulate information to their own advantage.

Now I know that this happens already, but that companies have to pay for the privilege. By paying for sponsored search results or other nefarious activities to boost page rankings and such. But at least there is the chance of serendipitously running across information which is useful or interesting. At the moment, if I type a word into the URL bar of my browser I get redirected to Google (which is customizable) and a host of information comes up. Similar to the example cited above, Sydney, links for restaurants, the airport, the Universities, the Opera House are presented to me. I can click on them or ignore them. I can go forward a couple of pages and find all sorts of other things.

Now I realise that this is the illusion of serendipity. Complex algorithms decide which links will be presented for my approval. However, if someone (likely a government entity in the case of Sydney or a corporation in the case of MacDonalds) owns "dot.sydney", when I type in Sydney, I will be redirected to where that organization chooses. The owner of "dot.sydney" may auction off the domain "hotels.sydney" to a particular chain of hotels. In the great new world of bypassing the search engine envisage by the commenter in the article, how exactly does this benefit the user? By reducing choice? By forcing companies to register domains not just in "dot.com", "dot.net", and "dot.org", but to pay for domains in "dot.sydney", "dot.melbourne", "dot.queensland" and "dot.victoria" too?

Forgive me for being skeptical that this innovation is anything more than a way for whoever can afford $US185,000 (to "prevent frivolous applications") from further commoditizing the Internet for their own gain. Only corporate entities and governments will be able to afford this. And they will use it to squash competition or to re-sell and make money themselves by creating monopolies on words and names.

It is always dangerous to try and predict what will result from a new technology (although strictly speaking this is not new technology, just new policy or politics). However, I don't see this necessarily making things better for consumers or for users, although I would be happy if it did. I can see how someone with a lazy $US185,000 can profit from it though. And after all, isn't that what the Internet is all about these days?

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