ICANN's recent announcement is another step along the road to an internet dominated by big brands with deep pockets. Like traditional media, in fact.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently approved a radical shake-up of the way website addresses are formulated. The current method of assigning one of a limited number of domain names (.com or .co.uk, for instance) was inevitably going to buckle, but it's worth reflecting on how well it worked.
Web addresses are, in fact, nothing of the sort. Sites are held on IP addresses. These are meaningless strings of numbers that bear no resemblance to the site therein (unless it's a site about IP addresses, I suppose). The text 'address' is simply an alias, resolved by a domain name server (DNS) to the correct numerical location.
Et voila: You typed in 'PCAdvisor.co.uk', and ended up enjoying the UK's best-read technology magazine website. Lucky you.
It's a wonderfully simple and effective system, and the use of descriptive names and domain-name suffixes allowed it to grow. Try to imagine how the web would work without '.com' and you'll quickly grow to love the simplicity of the top-level domain-name system. The internet as we know it simply wouldn't exist.
But expansion is required, and ICANN has decided that almost any word in any language can be a domain-name suffix. This includes non-Roman texts such as Arabic or Japanese, stripping away some of the benign neo-colonialism of a medium that remains indelibly English (okay: American English). So 'matt.egan' could be a web address, or 'pc.advisor'. But it won't be. Not this side of a lottery win.
The catch is that to apply for such a new suffix, site owners must shell out a $185,000 fee. Catch number 2 is something of a Catch 22 (let's call it 'catch.22'): you don't get the cash back if the application is unsuccessful.
So you have to be both rich and relaxed about losing a fortune to try. It's like the original dotcom boom all over again.
It's worth pointing out that ICANN is a not-for-profit organisation, and its justification for such a steep price of entry is to prevent timewasters and scammers – consider the amount of domain-name sitting and phishing the current system has fostered, and you can see the sense. But charging more than £100,000 just to apply means that the next generation of internet names will be exclusively for the rich and the corporate. For established brands, not thrusting startups.
ICANN will set aside $2m to assist applicants from developing countries, but expect to see huge corporations fighting over the right for suffixes such as '.laptop' and '.camera' – and the little guy getting squeezed out. Poor little guy.
It was always naive to expect the web to be the great leveller, and it's ever been the case that great content will beat a good web address (and a snazzy design, for that matter). But with apps and online services easing the average web user away from the open internet, the cost of online success is already getting more expensive. Opening up another level of domains exclusively to the super-rich serves only to accelerate this process. And this means the next generation of the internet could look like traditional media: dominated by powerful brands, influenced by the powerful few.