A start-up company, New.net, is offering Internet users the chance to register one of 24 new global domain names, including many that were dismissed by ICANN in its recent review, like .kids, .shop and .xxx.
The news has been greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by the Internet community who are tired of ICANN's inactivity regarding new domains and the need to open up the overcrowded market for .coms, .nets and .orgs. ICANN recently announced that the seven new domains it had agreed upon would still not be available for several months.
However, while New.net appears to be offering the Internet holy grail, things are unsurprisingly not as simple or wonderful as they first seem. New.net offers a downloadable plug-in that "enables" your browser to recognise the new domain names. What this amounts to is an applet that sends a request for any non-ICANN approved domain to New.net.
What New.net is essentially doing is selling sub-domains of its own domain name. So, for example, if you buy the domain theregister.tech for $25 (still available), you are in fact buying theregister.tech.new.net - the browser "plug-in" simply removes the "new.net" off the end. New.net isn't hiding this fact, but it does make media claims that New.net is somehow challenging ICANN's authority somewhat redundant.
New.net in fact has no plans to challenge ICANN. In its corporate statement it states it intention to work with ICANN and the company hopes to have a meeting with the ICANN top bods at its conference in Melbourne - which is going on as we write. (This is also the reason why there are a number of unanswered questions in this piece - we will get the answers when everyone returns from the conference.)
New.net currently relies entirely on the status quo. Unlike others that are angry with the ICANN/NSI Internet monopoly through control of the root servers, New.net has so far expressed no desire to set up an alternative root server. It maintains its own registry for all the domains paid for by Internet users (around 100,000 since it opened its doors last Monday, we reckon). By doing so, it has also upset a few people that have attempted to set up real alternative domains.
This system, as it stands, is completely unsupportable in anything but the short term. The Internet's strength lies in the DNS system and zero point of failure concept. By keeping 24 TLDs on just one .net site, the possibility of a massive failure is too large for any chance of commercial acceptance. It has already had some difficulties, with large numbers of people locked out of their domains.
There have also been problem with setting up the domains. One supporter posted a link to a tutorial he had written for people wanting to connect to their sites. Use of sub-domains (of your new.net sub-domain) is also currently banned. Mail has also been a problem. But it's early days and New.net is sorting through the problems.
However, you have to admire New.net's marketing savvy. There have been numerous attempts in the past to add new domains, bypass ICANN, set up alternative root servers, and none have achieved widespread success. New.net has created the illusion of new domain names with just a simple plug-in and done it without upsetting anyone (too much). No wonder it wants to speak to ICANN. While it isn't staking a claim on the Internet, its very success is embarrassing to ICANN.
How does New.net possible hope to stay afloat? Well, it's turning to ISPs and Internet brands to boost its image. It has already signed up with NetZero, Inyc.com, MP3.com, .KIDS, Earthlink and Excite@home. More interestingly still, it would appear that AT&T, Juno and Go!Zilla are about to sign up as affiliates.
AT&T is a very interesting one. The company was a hidden force in the creation of ICANN (and boardsquatter Frank Fitzsimmons uses att.net). Has the company grown upset by being sidelined in ICANN by IBM? Would it really take a hand in something that shows ICANN up for the control-freak, dictator it really is?
We asked New.net whether it was talking to Microsoft, Netscape, Opera regarding fitting its plug-in to their browsers. Our question was ignored. Not surprising when you consider the code tells it to send anything except the gTLDs and ccTLDs to New.net's server. This is hardly likely to offer consumers added value. There may also be a problem with the Navigator plug-in. When we installed it, a warning box told us it was asking for read, modify and deletion rights to our file system. No such problem with Explorer.
We also asked about the company's financial situation. It was set up with money from deeply-troubled incubator company Idealab. Idealab has recently shut down its Silicon Valley offices and fired a load of staff in its New York office. This is thanks in part to its consistent ability to pick, support and lose loads of money on dotcom failures. New.net's PR man told us that it wasn't completely reliant on Idealab, that it had other backers, but of course any details on who these people may be and how much money they have pumped in are confidential.
The question is: what is New.net's plan? It can't survive as it is, but if it gets enough backing behind it, ICANN may have to accommodate it. Can ICANN choose to ignore it and let it whither? Maybe. But at some point in the future, the secretive organisation may want to use the TLDs New.net is offering. If New.net hasn't disappeared in the meantime, can ICANN afford to displace hundreds of thousands of domain name owners? We wouldn't put it past it - especially with WIPO and NSI in the wings, armed with bike chains - but it would be very callous.
If ICANN flips New.net the birdie, can it survive? Yes, but probably only by turning to people outside the cosy Internet monopolies. It could possibly work as a catalyst for all the people furious at the current system. Aside from inertia and a slight amount of trepidation, the only thing stopping large sections of the Internet industry from bypassing ICANN and NSI altogether is a wider public recognition of the issues. New.net could possibly provide that.
The issue of non-ICANN domains was due to be discussed at the meeting in Melbourne yesterday but sat at the end of the agenda and was passed over when other discussions overran. We sincerely hope room is made for it today or ICANN may find people become even angrier. ®