It’s being called a digital land rush, and four companies have their sights set on .gay.
When the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) decided in 2008 to expand the pool of existing top-level domains (TLDs) to include almost any term imaginable, it opened the floodgate for speculators and corporations looking to stake a claim.
In the first round last spring, ICANN received 1,930 proposals from 1,115 applicants looking to operate 1,409 possible TLDs.
ICANN is the non-profit organization responsible for the global coordination of the internet’s system of unique identifiers such as domain names (.org, .museum and country codes like .uk and .ca) and the addresses used in a variety of protocols that help computers reach each other over the internet.
Currently there are about two dozen active TLDs — not including geographic domains — on the web, including .com, .net, .org and .info. The first of the new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are expected to debut in 2013.
The money is big and the stakes are high. Each application costs $185,000 and, if successful, another $25,000 annual fee. The initial application round has already netted ICANN more than $357 million. If more than one organization submits an application for the same domain name, then an auction will take place.
There are four competing bids for the .gay domain: dotgay LLC, United TLD, Top Level Design and Top Level Domain.
Dotgay LLC has applied as a community-based group and is applying only for .gay, whereas the other three companies have applied for multiple domains.
Community status, although much more difficult to acquire, would give dotgay priority and a strong edge over its competitors. To that end, representatives from dotgay have been travelling the globe seeking out written endorsements for their proposal.
So far, they’ve amassed more than 128 endorsements from gay businesses, media outlets and non-profits, including PFLAG Canada, LEGIT-Toronto and the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Dotgay’s vice-president of marketing, Jamie Baxter, promises his company’s bid will be a huge benefit to the gay community worldwide in terms of safety, visibility and support.
He argues that .gay will create a safer environment on the internet for gay people, through internal policies that have yet to be formed.
“These policies will be created in conjunction with the community so that we set our own rules for how we’ll operate,” he says.
“Only community members will be allowed to register .gay names; there is a level of safety there as well. Because if you see a domain name that ends in .gay . . . you know that’s a business or an organization or whatever it might be that has been in some way vetted by the community.”
Baxter hopes that eventually thousands of gay business and community groups worldwide will sign on as local authentication partners who will then be tasked with verifying who should or should not be allowed to have a .gay address.
“The intent is to keep people out who are not community members or who are wanting to register .gay domain names for ill intent. The great thing about having a .gay domain, as opposed to registering on .com, is that we’ll be able to have our own unique policies around name abuse and names that are even registerable to use and prevent a lot of abuse.”
Asked what might constitute ill intent, Baxter gives the example of ihateall.gay.
“We would be able to circumvent that by removing it at the very beginning. Before we launch, we will take submissions from the global community on phrases or words that clearly are abusive or harmful to our community,” he explains.
He also says that groups that use legitimate-sounding names to host anti-gay content could potentially have their sites shut down or be forced to remove the objectionable content.
Baxter expects that adult content may also be regulated, but that would be up to community advisors. He suggests that adult over-18 warnings could be one possible option. He stresses that if community leaders think that free speech should be absolute, then their policies will reflect that.
Baxter maintains that the .gay domain will benefit the community by increasing visibility — “putting it on a global platform and having the word gay be on the internet in a much more significant way than it ever has been.”
This will break down taboos around the gay community, he believes.
Baxter shrugs off concerns that the .gay domain will create a cyber-ghetto and will make it easier for libraries, schools or countries to block off all gay-related content.
“Whether you’re blocking a word or you’re blocking a domain, it’s really the same exercise. So no, I don’t think it’s really going to have any different effect than what already exists,” he says.
“By having .gay on the internet and having an organization like ICANN supporting it is really a step forward for us,” he maintains.
Dotgay hopes that second-level domain names (like the “xtra” in xtra.ca) will retail for about $99 annually.
Asked how many second-level domain names he anticipates selling per year, Baxter is noncommittal. He says he anticipates dotgay will have to prove itself and build trust with the gay community before it catches on.
“We actually think that [they] will roll out slowly,” he says. “Our projections have been very modest.”
“The goal with the pricing is that it will definitely generate a substantial amount of funding that will go back into the community,” he says, “and also work in our favour to keep speculators and domain grabbers out.”
Asked how the community would benefit financially from dotgay’s profits, Baxter points to two levels. First, local groups that sign on to be authentication partners will receive compensation for every registration they bring in, in the range of $7 to $10 each per year.
Secondly, dotgay plans to start a separate charitable foundation to give back to the community.
“Our commitment is that 67 percent of the profits from the domain name sales will actually be redistributed back into the community through the dotgay foundation, which will be created once ICANN approves our application,” he says.
Asked who in the community might benefit, Baxter says he can’t say because the board that will develop the criteria for who will be eligible to receive those funds hasn’t been assembled yet.
“Our registry advisory board will decide those criteria. It will have global representation; all segments of our community will be represented. The size and the scope of it hasn’t been determined yet,” he notes.
He stresses that though dotgay is based in New York, the company’s focus will not be exclusively North American. “There will be an emphasis on bringing the underdeveloped countries online so that they have the same access to the internet that we have.”
Asked how much the bid has cost dotgay so far, Baxter says he doesn’t have the total number. He says the application itself cost $185,000, but that doesn’t include dotgay’s staffing for the past few years or travel to ICANN conferences three times each year.
“It’s been a healthy investment,” he says wryly.
While Baxter was more than willing to discuss his company’s plans for the .gay domain, the other three bidders were harder to pin down.
United TLD has applied for 26 gTLDs, including .green, .republican and .ninja. United TLD is incorporated in the Cayman Islands and is a subsidiary of DMIH Limited, which in turn is a subsidiary of Demand Media Inc.
Demand Media owns the popular websites eHow, Cracked and Livestrong.
In its application for the .gay domain, United TLD writes, “The mission and purpose of the .gay TLD is to establish an easily recognized and accessible namespace for the large and dynamic group of people and organizations who positively associate with this term.”
Quinn Daly, a spokesperson for Demand Media, declined to comment on the company’s intentions for .gay.
“Because we are still in the application and approval process, we are not publicly discussing our plans at this time,” Daly told Xtra in an email. “When and if United TLD’s application for this domain extension is approved, then we will absolutely reach out to talk about our plans for .gay.”
The third bidder, Top Level Design, did not respond to Xtra’s interview requests at all. The Florida-registered company has applied for 10 gTLDs, including .art, .photography and .style.
In its ICANN application, Top Level Design argues that .gay should not receive community status: “There are plenty of people that defy distinct labelling, and identify themselves through fluid notions of gender and sexuality. This is precisely why we at Top Level Design, LLC believe that a .gay TLD could never be delegated through a Community Priority application . . . Just because it is often easiest to try to fit others’ gender and sexual preferences into socially constructed boxes, whether heterosexual or LGBTQ, does not mean that the minority who participate in multiple self-definitions at any one time can be ignored, or that we have the right to create labels for them.
“We believe that by our placing a premium on individual self-expression, we are fulfilling a major tenet of LGBTQ culture, which also maps well onto the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance,” Top Level Design writes in its application.
The fourth company vying for .gay, Top Level Domain, did not respond to emailed requests for interviews either.
Top Level Domain is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and has applied for 70 gTLDs, including .blog, .yoga and .vodka.
According to its application, “The .gay domain will allow people of all sexes, cultures and creeds to freely express and voice their opinions and discourse.”
Top Level Domain argues against censorship and for a more libertarian approach but promises to enforce an acceptable use and abuse-prevention policy. “We believe that any plan to stifle free speech would be more harmful to .gay’s reputation and business success than any attempt by us to govern speech.”
The company also rejects the idea of limiting registration to gay community members.
“We specifically examined more restrictive registration policies, such as limiting registration to members of organizations with a specific tie to the GLBTQA population. We rejected such limitations because they would interfere with .gay’s primary mission, purpose and goals — which is to encourage as many registrants as possible to associate themselves with the GLBTQA population for any legal purpose.”
ICANN held a lottery on Dec 17 for most of the 1,930 applications to determine whose results will be revealed first. Baxter estimates that the first batch of approved applications will be announced in April 2013.