The upcoming expansion of the internet's domain name system could see more than 2,000 new top-level domains come into existence, according to policy overseer ICANN.
The organisation revealed at the weekend that it has received 2,091 applications for its controversial new gTLD programme, and could see up to 214 more before it shuts the door to applicants.
With a maximum of 2,305 new suffixes coming online, the top level of the DNS could be six times as populous in just a couple of years from now.
Most of the gTLDs being applied for remain secret, but about 200 bids have been publicly announced for strings such as .london, .blog, .music, .gay and .google.
At $185,000 per application, ICANN said it is now sitting on an embarrassingly large cash pile of roughly $350m in application fees, much of which will be used to pay the programme's outside evaluators.
Today, the California-based organisation promised a full refund to any gTLD applicant that changes its mind between now and when ICANN reveals which company applied for which string.
The refund decision was made in light of a security bug in its TLD Application System (TAS) which enabled about 50 applicants to inadvertently view confidential data belonging to 105 other applicants. The TAS has been down since 12 April as a result of the gaffe. ICANN plans to inform all applicants today whether or not their accounts were affected by the problem, but it has not yet said when TAS will reopen for business.
It has also not yet disclosed when the big reveal of submitted applications could take place, although outgoing CEO Rod Beckstrom told us last week that it could be as late as the end of June.
The number of applications is a lot higher than ICANN was expecting when it launched the programme. Up until last week, it was still officially budgeting for just 500, even though every company in the domain name industry has said for several months that the actual figure would be more than double ICANN's prediction.
Today, there are roughly 300 top-level domains live on the internet. The vast majority are country-code TLDs, either legacy ASCII strings such as .uk and .us or newly created "internationalised" ccTLDs such as .РФ (.rf for Russian Federation) and .中国 (China).
There are 23 so-called "generic" TLDs, such as .com, .org and .biz, 18 of which operate under contract with ICANN. The new gTLD programme will see the majority of TLDs come under ICANN's auspices.
New dot-words run the gauntlet
But not all of the 2,000 applications will be approved. A lengthy evaluation process set to kick off after the big reveal is expected to whittle the number down to only those that can adequately demonstrate a sound technical and financial standing.
There will also be myriad opportunities for objections to be filed against applications if, for example, they are confusingly similar to trademarks or morally objectionable. Governments will have a strong voice in what gets accepted and what gets rejected.
In addition, many of the 2,000-plus applications are expected to be for the same string. In most of those instances the applicants will be encouraged to settle their differences among themselves and consolidate under a single application. Failing that, ICANN will conduct auctions that could fatten its coffers further.
According to the overseer's recently published draft budget, however, all of its new gTLD programme funds are being accounted for separately. The non-profit organisation has promised to return excess money to yet-unspecified internet community projects.
The programme has also come in for harsh criticism from American trade groups, such as the Association of National Advertisers, which are worried about trademark protection. The ANA set up a lobby group last year, the Coalition For Responsible Internet Domain Oversight, which urged the US government to put a stop to the expansion.
Yesterday, the ANA kept up the pressure on ICANN, writing to its CEO and to US Department of Commerce assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling to ask why its ongoing demands for a "do not sell" list of specially protected trademarks have fallen on deaf ears.
Conventional wisdom has it that many new gTLD applicants are merely applying as a risk-mitigation measure, to prevent their brands being diluted by identical or confusingly similar gTLDs. However, ICANN's leadership has consistently taken the view that the existing legal rights protection mechanisms in the programme are sufficient to prevent trademarks being infringed. ®