Web identity is the '.name' of the game

International

Registration process
IP protection strategy
Monopoly issues


The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has completed final negotiations with the Global Name Registry (GNR) to implement the '.name' domain. This new top-level name has the potential to become the global standard for individual identity on the Internet. Many industry observers believe consumers may favour the '.name' domain for personal web sites and e-mail addresses. Moreover, the anticipated popularity of '.name' is expected to have important implications for corporations, especially when fighting against cybersquatters.

Registration process

GNR is a small, London-based internet start-up that will sell '.name' addresses through authorized registrars. The registration process will require consumers to produce legal proof of the name they intend to register. Under the agreement between ICANN and GNR, a GNR-accredited registrar will register the legal name, pen name or nickname of any living person (or trademark holder of a trademarked name). For example, someone legally named John Smith would register as 'john.smith.name'. (The second John Smith to register could obtain a 'john.smith2.name' address). The registrar will then create a www.john.smith.name web site and a '[email protected]' e-mail address.

IP protection strategy

Sunrise registrations
Sunrise registrations are held before general registrations, and are intended to protect trademarked names. The GNR plans to hold a period of sunrise registrations. However, the recent failure of the '.info' sunrise registration suggests that GNR's plan may not prevent cybersquatting. In early August, a registrar for '.info' accepted a number of bogus registrations during its early registration programme. Many of the bogus applications contained obviously false trademark numbers and other data. This suggests that some registrars may not properly monitor their sunrise registrations or possess the ability to verify the data of all applications.

Third-level registration only
A third-level domain is that portion of a web address that appears two segments to the left of the top-level domain (eg, the 'john' in 'john.smith.name'). GNR claims that allowing only third- level registrations will be less attractive to cybersquatters than first or second-level registration. This is because registration of a common last name on the second level (eg, 'smith.name') is valuable as everyone named Smith who wishes to register would need the second-level 'smith.name' domain. On the other hand, a third-level (eg, 'bill.smith.name') would be valuable only to consumers named Bill Smith who sought '.name' addresses. However, cybersquatters could still register bogus names on the third-level and may attempt to register valuable third-level names (eg, the non-trademarked names of celebrities).

String monitoring system
GNR's string monitoring system may offer some protection against cybersquatting. The plan is to conduct ongoing intellectual property protection by means of a character string monitoring system. For instance, GNR would look for bogus registrations including the character string 'IBM' and infringing registrations would then be removed. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on its accuracy and swiftness. If the string monitoring system does not capture all infringing character strings, some infringers would never be caught. If the system cannot detect infringing registrations quickly, they could do costly damage to corporations before being removed.

Dispute resolution
GNR's dispute resolution process should benefit corporations because it favours trademark holders in disputes. GNR will not register names that could be confused with trademarked or brand names, and will allow trademark holders to challenge questionable registrations subject to the rules established by ICANN's Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). Both experts and critics consider the UDRP favours trademark holders in domain name disputes. Thus, corporations holding trademarks should generally prevail in disputed '.name' registrations.

Monopoly issues

If the '.name' domain proves popular, GNR could have a virtual monopoly on individual internet presences. GNR claims that the '.name' domain will allow subscribers to create a "digital repository" of information for friends and family, and allow them to control access to their identities on the Internet. GNR also claims that service providers will eventually permit subscribers to use their '.name' addresses and passwords to access e-commerce services.

In addition to an exclusive right to sell '.name' addresses, GNR will possess a wealth of valuable consumer marketing data that it could use in other business ventures (although this will depend on the unproven popularity of '.name' addresses with consumers and service providers).

GNR's monopoly will depend on consumers choosing '.name' over similar services. Some major service providers plan to use their internet presence and substantial consumer lists to compete in the individual identity market by offering individualized web addresses and personal domains in the '.com' domain. However, what distinguishes '.name' from these services is that it can offer more domain space to individuals because of limited domain space available on the '.com' domain.

Prospects

The Whois controversy
Awaiting final approval from the Department of Commerce, a controversy concerning the Whois database may prevent GNR's implementation of '.name'. Whois is the public database containing the names of all people who register web sites. All seven newly-launched top-level domains will make use of Whois. Privacy advocates have expressed concern that an expanded database will invite marketeering. Intellectual property owners have argued that the database is a necessary tool to investigate and combat cyberpiracy.

In July, Congress conducted hearings on Whois privacy issues, indicating a reticence to approve '.name' and other top-level domains using the database. It is not clear ultimately what impact the controversy will have on approval.

Non-English '.name' domains
If '.name' becomes popular and GNR can prevent cybersquatting, GNR may eventually launch similar top-level domains for personal use by foreign consumers. In its application for '.name' last year, GNR suggested the possible future use of '.nom', '.san' and '.xing'. As GNR explained, these top-level domains are "suggested future expansions in the personal domain space [intended to] accommodate other cultures and languages once the market need for '.name' is proven."

Mark Plotkin, Covington & Burling, Washington DC

Get unlimited access to all WTR content