Should we have a new non-profit-only Internet domain?

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I attended an interesting meeting last week, along with folks from a few other charities and non-profit-related organisations, to hear about the plans in place to introduce new Internet Top Level Domains (TLDs) to add to those you’ll already know – like .com, .org, etc – and in particular to discuss what benefit might come from introducing a new non-profit-only community TLD.

If you haven’t heard about this significant forthcoming change to the way Internet addressing works, don’t worry – you’re not alone. While it has been discussed for many years now, it is only relatively recently that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which co-ordinates the Internet’s naming and numbering system, announced a timeline for the use of new TLDs – with applications starting in 2010.

At present website addresses use a relatively small number of generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) – like .com, .net, and .org – or country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) – like .co.uk or .fr. However, as from 2010 gTLDs could actually be any word or acronym you like. So, major brands could register brand-specific gTLDs like .nike or .coke. City gTLDs, like .London or .NYC, could be registered for tourist information, and specific industries could also register their own gTLDs – like .bank or .beer. All you’ll need to register your own such domain is a chunky $185,000 registration fee and then the funds to cover the annual running costs (suffice to say that at that price I won’t be launching .bry anytime soon).

What is potentially interesting from the non-profit point of view is that newly registered gTLDs don’t have to be ‘open’ like .com or .co.uk – where anyone can register a site. It is quite possible to register a new gTLD with a specific set of criteria that must be met before anyone can register a site using it. Hence the main discussion last week, organised by Victoria Harris of Article 25 and supported by VeriSign, which focused on what benefits might be available from a non-profit-only ‘closed’ gTLD – perhaps .ngo – restricted to registered charities and other non-profit organisations and managed by a non-profit consortium. In effect how .org was originally envisaged before anyone was allowed to register a .org address whether or not they are a non-profit.

The idea behind such a closed non-profit-only gTLD is that, over time, consumers will come to recognise and trust this as being evidence that an organisation using it is a legitimate non-profit and not someone running an Internet scam. I must admit that I’d never thought much about fake charity online fraud before, but apparently this became an especially serious issue after the Asian Tsunami in 2004 when a wide range of online scammers posing as emergency relief charities took advantage of the outpouring of online support for the sufferers. More work is needed to get an accurate estimate of the scale of ongoing online charitable fraud, but VeriSign have estimated that it could be around £68m annually just in the UK and as more and more individual giving moves online this will only become a bigger issue for the international non-profit community.

There is much more discussion yet to be had, not least into just how any such closed community gTLD might be funded and managed, but as it progresses I’ll be sure to post updates to keep you informed. In the meantime, if you’ve got any thoughts on the pros or cons of such a proposal then do share them by adding a comment below.