This is a story about top level domains or TLDs. The original six are the most popular: .com, .net, .org, .gov, .mil and .edu. And you know, there’s no set number of them — nowhere in any rulebook does it say “we shall only have x amount of top level domains.” You may have started to see a few more: Very, very recently more than 100 new gTLDs have been delegated to the Internet’s Root Zone. Root Zone sounds more exciting than it is, by the by. It’s just the place where all the TLDs are held. Before there were 280 (all those country signifiers like .fr, .uk and .ca) and increased maybe one TLD per year. But BOOM! Loads mores have just gone through. And they are super diverse. Some seem relevant, at least to my interests (.camp) and some seem like a facepalm waiting to happen (.sexy). But the one you haven’t seen quite yet is .gay, though not for lack of trying. You see, there are a few companies vying for control of .gay. And that’s really what we’re going to talk about today — who should have control over .gay. Bear with me, though. Because to get there, we’re gonna need a little bit of background.
ICANN stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and they basically hold the keys to the kingdom: they control a lot of components that make up the internet. ICANN runs the show on 180 million domain names, the allocation of 4 billion plus network addresses and the three trillion DNS1 lookups per day for 240 countries. It was founded in California in 1998 to relieve the U.S. Government of assigning domain names and numbers. I personally like that because I don’t like the idea of one country’s government being basically in charge of the internet, even if that country is my own. ICANN does work with both governments, though, and private sector companies world wide to keep the internet from looking like an entirely un-navigable overgrown tangle of a garden. And because nowhere does it say we can only have six generic top level domains, there was a small expansion a few years ago. You might actually remember it — we started seeing .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name and .pro round-about the year 2000. I was 11 and I remember seeing .biz for the first time. I thought it was kinda dumb — haven’t ever purchased a .biz domain name and I’ve never told anyone I thought they should.
There’s another expansion you might remember — .xxx. It was a huge heated debate in the porn community years ago (whether it was a good thing or a bad thing for sex-related internet content), and it was a huge debate for ICANN too: .xxx was proposed in 2003 along with .asia, .cat, .mobi, .jobs, and .travel. Those all passed through pretty quickly (in the 2005-2006 arena), but .xxx passed in 2011 after a whole hell of a lot of conversation. This batch is also different from the last couple in that it’s entirely made of sTLDS, whereas the previous expansion was a mix.
Oh yes, there are different kinds of TLDs.
Generic TLDs2 can be used for general purposes (.com, .net, .info, .org). Sponsored TLDs3 can only be used by entities engaged in their particular industry — .gov and .edu are good examples. One is for government sites only and the other for schools. There’s a bit of an in between place called “generic restricted,” meaning that these TLDs can only be used for their specified purposes but can be used by any entity (.biz, .name and .pro4).
Andrew Merriam, Business Development Coordinator at Top Level Design, explained to me what goes into applying for and owning one of these TLDs.
“The way that the internet developed originally was a bit of a monopoly. There was one company called Network Solutions or NSI — I can’t remember, it was before my time — they basically ran the internet, they ran ‘.com’, they ran ‘.org’, they ran ‘.net,’ and because of it they had a bit of a monopoly.”
So one company is making money hand-over-fist, and ICANN wants to diversify to create more competition in the world of TLD registries and registrars. So they vow to add a crap ton of new TLDs. But what they need is private companies or government entities to own them, so to speak. That is, to be responsible for their management and distribution — and hell, to even invent them. Merriam explained it to me like this:
“Generally speaking, registry is the wholesaler and registrar is the retailer, so when I say that ‘.wiki’ will be ours we’ll act as the wholesaler, which means we have all the names available in our database and then the registrars go out and sell whatever their customers are interested in.”
If you’ve visited GoDaddy, you’ve dealt with a registrar selling domains that it purchases off a registry. It’s probably one of the most well-known registrars, “because they have those outlandish advertisements,” says Merriman.
To become a TLD wholesaler for one of these brand new gTLDs, your company has to come up with one, apply for it, and then be awarded that TLD by ICANN based on your ability to be a registry. If your company comes up with one that no one else has thought of or wants, then your competition is lower. But not low, by any stretch of the imagination — your company still has a lot to prove in their application:
“Basically you have to submit an application covering your financial and technical capabilities foremost. So basically [you have to prove] that you have the financial wherewithal and the technical infrastructure to bring one of these to market without it failing. Because imagine that, even if you only get a few thousand customers, if you were to suddenly just fall off the map one day it would disrupt the global internet. So you’ve got to prove that that’s not going to happen and that you have steps in place in the case of an insolvency, either financially or technical backups. And then you also present your business plan.”
ICANN doesn’t mess around.
Now Merriam cares about this because he works for Top Level Design, a registrar that has applied for several TLDs, including .gay. Here’s where it gets interesting.
There is a special distinction for TLDs that are also names of identities or communities, called Community Priority Evaluation:
The community status is a good program, it’s a special program, it’s a program that is meant to ensure that a clearly delineated community — that’s ICANN’s terms — is given the name of their community ahead of anyone else. A really approachable example, one that was used throughout the development of the ICANN application process, is the Cherokee Nation, so that if the Cherokee Nation wanted ‘.cherokee’ that they would be able to get it ahead of anyone else or a corporate interest — you know, Cherokee Clothing or Cherokee Jeep, that kind of thing.
The debate has been whether this falls into it. One other company, a competitor to Top Level Design, thinks it does. They’re aptly named dotgay LLC. From their website:
Also from their website (emphasis theirs):
Our business model calls for non-profit LGBT client organizations to receive 67% of the profit generated from the sale of .gay domain names. The funds would be channeled through a tax-exempt foundation operated separately from dotgay LLC.
Needless to say, I was intrigued. I reached out to dotgay and spoke with Jamie Baxter, Vice President of Marketing, who had the following to say:
The community model for .gay that was submitted by dotgay LLC includes an authentication process for those interested in registering a .gay domain name. This process is designed to help fulfill the restrictive registration requirements for Community applicants and to be initial steps in addressing the safety aspect of the dotgay mission.
Authentication Partners will be the access point for community members interested in registering .gay domain names. It will not be dotgay LLC itself making those decisions. Authentication Partners will include a colorful array of community organizations and groups that reach deep into all corners of the community. These will include groups with a focus on human rights, commerce & travel, community centers, health services, sporting leagues & social networks, political parties, religious groups, support services, and the list goes on. There will be thousands of entry points from within the community, offering ample opportunity for all regardless of geography or economic status.
This is in direct contrast with Top Level Design’s viewpoint on the matter — that .gay should be available to all applicants without an authentication process. Says Merriam on the subject:
Once we looked, really kind of dug into the rules for being a community and dug into their business plan, it was pretty clear that they shouldn’t be given community status just because their business plans were a little bit overreaching. There’s no shortage of debate about how the term ‘gay’ should be used, and so their definition and use of it didn’t really match up to reality. So yeah, given that we decided to apply under an open model.
I respect the work and outreach that dotgay LLC has done, but I think that they see gaining ‘.gay’ as a community as a way around the rest of the ICANN process. They don’t have to deal with us, they basically get first in line, and in doing that they sacrifice access and the creation of an accessible platform. So basically we don’t think that anyone should have to authenticate or check a box or anything else their gender or sexual identity for a product. Because a domain name is a product. So like any other product you shouldn’t have to authenticate or verify anything about your identity as a human being to be able to purchase that product. It doesn’t feel right and it’s going to restrict — their ‘.gay’ would mainly be used by people that have the resources and interest in engaging these organizations. So that’ll be Western, upwardly-mobile, urban city centers, white gay males.
It’s this viewpoint of a TLD as a product instead of a community asset that is exactly what dotgay opposes. When asked what the Autostraddle community should know about the .gay community application, Baxter replied:
dotgay LLC is focused on one Community application for .gay and the others have applied for large portfolios of non-community TLDs, reinforcing their views that TLDs are merely commodities.
If you speak to Top Level Design, the debate is framed as open v. closed. If you speak to dotgay LLC, the debate is community v. commodity. This community application was supposed to be settled months ago, and as of right now nothing is decided on .gay. And that’s because both sides have really solid arguments — on one hand, should an identity be treated as a product? Should that identity signifier not be owned by the community it represents? And on the other, how do we define the gay community? Who belongs? And when a gate-keeping system is set up, who is policed out? Who does the policing?
I talked to both of these smart, passionate humans back in February and it took me this long to write the article highlighting their points. I think it’s because I truly don’t know who is correct in this case. This might stem from the fact that I’d rather take a long walk off a short pier into dirty water with my best clothes on rather than purchase a .gay domain name. I don’t think adding identity beyond the dot makes anyone (or their website) more or less part of the queer community. I don’t think it makes it easier to locate a website that will provide sought-after resources for the community. But it also might stem from the reality that this is an extremely nuanced issue, and I’m not sure anyone is one hundred percent correct.
It’s also worth noting that TLDs are inherently commercial — they are for purchase. As much as we want to believe that we can divorce ourselves from money on this topic, there are still businesses competing for one resource here. A TLD is a product, and someone will sell it. It’s not as though dotgay is proposing that they give out free domain names to community members. And though dotgay promises to work closely with a nonprofit entity operating separately from their business to monetary resources back to the community, the question remains: who qualifies?
The truth is, the gay community is nebulous and shifting. If we’re talking ICANN’s standards of “clearly delineated,” it’s really anything but that. Slate’s coverage of this issue asks the question “is there a gay community?” And there is, we can feel it. But can we draw a line around it? Can we say these people belong, but these people don’t? I submit that we cannot.
And yet. And yet.
Don’t we, as a community, still have the right to control an asset that is ours and that no one really wanted but us until recently? Don’t we want to keep our hard earned dollars in the family? Is that worth taking a risk on a potential gate-keeping system? Is it worth throwing our strength behind a community-run TLD that we, frankly, don’t know will serve the interests of the community? Do we all belong under that one TLD?
The real question here, I think, is which kind of battle is this really? Is it open v. closed, community v. commodity, or is it just businesses vying for a product that will make them money?
1. DNS—that stands for Domain Name System. Basically it’s the part of the internet that translates the domain name you type into your browser, like autostraddle.com, into it’s numeric location on this giant network we like to call the Interwebz.
2. Nickname, gTLDs.
3. As you may imagine, these are sTLDs. And if you want a complete list, that’s: .aero, .asia, .cat, .coop, .edu, .gov, .int, .jobs, .mil, .mobi, .tel, .travel, and .xxx.
4. You may be wondering what the hell .name is and .pro are used for, specifically. I was. Turns out, .name is for personal blogs and websites, even for business blogs and websites, that use a person’s name, nickname or screen name. I have the same feeling about this as I do about .biz. Seems really fucking silly. And you may have guessed that .pro is designed to be used by professionals, which at least sounds less fucking silly than .biz because it doesn’t end with a 90’s “z.”
This has been the eighty-second installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to favorite to any other fun shit we can do with technology.
Feature image via Shutterstock
Header by Rory Midhani