Everyone who has used the internet is familiar with the ubiquitous .com, .org and .net URL extensions. But a little-known planned expansion of generic top level domains (gTLDs), as they are called, is pitting online giant Amazon against Brazil and Peru who want to preserve a .amazon domain for informational sites for the Amazon rainforest and Amazon river.
First, let’s backtrack.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) – a U.S.-based non-profit organization that plays a key role in cyberspace governance, is set to allow approved new domain names to go into effect later this year. Corporate heavyweights like Google and Amazon have jumped in head first, jockeying to win domains like .app as well as .book, .shop, .game and others, which they would own entirely. But some requests like .amazon are being objected to for geographical or cultural reasons.
“They always knew this was going to be a tricky issue,” says University of Houston Law Center professor Jacqueline D. Lipton, the author of “Internet Domain Names, Trademarks and Free Speech.” “There has been little protection for geographically and culturally significant terms but this will matter in the gTLD space. Clearly these countries and geographic regions are well within their rights under ICANN policy to make these objections. What we’re missing are rules or guidelines to deal with these situations.”
Brazil and Peru gave the rationale for their objections in the early warning issued regarding .amazon.
“The Amazon region constitutes an important part of the territory of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela, due to its extensive biodiversity and incalculable natural resources,” the objection read in part. “Granting exclusive rights to this specific gTLD to a private company would prevent the use of this domain for purposes of public interest related to the protection, promotion and awareness raising on issues related to the Amazon biome. It would also hinder the possibility of use of this domain to congregate web pages related to the population inhabiting that geographical region.”
Both countries added that their objection comes with the full endorsement of Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana and Argentina.
Lipton says both sides can make good arguments for .amazon.
“I can completely understand why any trademark or brand owner would feel like it’s within their rights to own .brand or .trademark,” she says. “That’s the way the system has been set up, up to this point. The internet is used for communication but also as a commercial medium.”
NBC Latino reached out to Amazon but did not receive comment before publication.
Some say it sets a bad precedent for companies to be bidding on these words because there are not many entities that could pay the $186,000 application fee along with the possible millions that an eventual win may cost if companies like Google and Amazon go to auction for a hotly-contested domain like .app.
“This is the first time I can think of in the history of anything, that any entity has been in position to auction to the highest bidder elements of language — words and phrases that are significant to different people in different contexts,” Lipton says. “If a [top-level domain] is highly disputed it will go to auction but these companies have done their cost benefit analysis and decided it’s worth it.”
Brazil and Peru aren’t the only countries taking on a corporation over domains. Argentina filed an objection to outdoor apparel company Patagonia — over you guessed it — .patagonia. Switzerland has also filed against Swiss International Airlines over .swiss, Kenya against DotConnectAfrica Trust for .africa and the U.S. has jumped into the fray against United TLD Holdco Ltd. for .army, .airforce and .navy.
Lipton says that as an internet lawyer, she often asks whether the law is the answer or market practices and negotiations can bring parties to a better place. She suggests that both sides may be able to come to a compromise in these disputes.
A lot of the motivation is very genuine for Brazil and Peru who want sites that are more informational than commercial,” she says.”But there are a lot of options. Companies may decide it’s better to share the gTLD, which would mean the brand name secures it and opens up some of the subdomains to parties that are culturally interested in being in that space.”
She says the debate goes to the heart of an open internet and what companies and individuals want the internet to be. “What is open? What is innovation? What is best for online communication? A company like Google has an idea about how significant it will be to hold one of these [top-level domains] in the Google algorithm and they will decide how to prioritize them,” Lipton says.
“This is all very relevant because at the end of the day we don’t know what innovation is going to look like online in the next few years.”