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by Adam Wisnieski, May 18, 2014
 

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Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is pushing ahead with the Bloomberg .nyc plan (photo: nyc.gov)

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Everything after the dot is changing. A couple of years ago, only 22 generic top-level domains — including .com, .edu, .org and .net — were in use online. Last year, the governing body that oversees these generic top-level domains (gTLDs), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), opened the floodgates. The number of web suffixes will likely soar to well over 1,000 in the next couple of years.

Dozens of new gTLDs have been approved by ICANN recently, including domains like .singles, .blackfriday, .gop, .sexy, .diamonds, .wtf, .dating, .christmas, .ninja and .cool, some of which are already live. One of the newest to join that growing list was registered by the City of New York: .nyc.

Last week the City announced the official launch of .nyc. In a May 5 press release, Mayor Bill de Blasio trumpeted the start of a four-phase, five-month rollout of the city's domain, beginning with the 45-day sunrise period where trademark holders can claim their .nyc addresses, then a month for the government to scoop up the names it wants, followed by a "landrush" period where popular names will be auctioned off, and, finally, a first-come, first-serve public availability in October (the cost is between $15 and $30 for registration and a similar annual fee, though the exact price will be determined by the 31 registrars on the open market).

De Blasio touted the launch as "one of the most anticipated arrivals for the city and the Internet at large," and said, "There is no shortage of New Yorkers ready to claim their exclusive .nyc identities online, and this is their chance to reserve their piece of this city's valuable digital real estate," according to the press release.

The City is banking on .nyc replacing .com or .org for many businesses, individuals and organizations based in the five boroughs that want to tell the digital world where they call home. So instead of competing for that perfect, catchy .com or .org — which may have been claimed years ago — individuals and entities will have the chance to craft a virtual identity that is tied to a geographical location.

But some New Yorkers are concerned about the path the City is taking. How to acquire and fairly distribute .nyc web addresses is a wonky and for many, boring issue. It wasn't a hot topic during the mayoral campaign and aside from a couple of sparsely attended (and reported) public hearings on the topic dating back to 2008, there has been no major public debate over how the City of New York should go about controlling its very own top-level domain.

While the debate has largely existed behind closed doors or by a small vocal minority online, some of the strongest words ever spoken on the subject publicly came from the mayor himself, way back when he was a city council member.

De Blasio's Old Stance
At a technology committee hearing in 2008 organized by then-Council Member Gale Brewer, de Blasio spoke about his concerns for .nyc. During a discussion over whether a non-profit or private company should work on behalf of the City to distribute domain names, de Blasio said he thought it was a bad idea to have any third party involved and that government should handle it
altogether. The comments come during the fall of 2008, just after the market crashed:

"I think in this last month or two, we've been given, probably in my lifetime, the most profound lesson on why the government has to play a role, a mediating role in public life and in the economy and I'm sort of at a point personally very unapologetic now about saying I have no longer any doubt about government as the arbiter because I don't trust the private sector to do it and I think the stock market situation just kind of, to me, makes that point so clearly across the board," said de Blasio.

He spoke at length about why .nyc administration should be "directly overseen by a legislative body."

"I fear if it's outside the hands of government, it will get in some way derailed or sent into a track where it won't be effective," he said, according to the hearing transcript. "Why on earth shouldn't it be the appropriate role of government?"

De Blasio detailed the ineffectiveness of the open market when it comes to claiming web addresses, saying the system of people grabbing up names and selling them off to the highest bidder is rampant and unfair.

"You know, and that would be true obviously if you came up with .nyc, it would instantly have people running all over trying to grab all the good names and I think what it means is it kind of goes against, again, everything that Gale [Brewer] and this committee has been talking about is about equity and access. And so, if you keep repeating the pattern we've had up to now...it still seems to me that slowly but surely [it will] fall it into the worst habits of the private sector where it becomes about who has the most resources, who has the most lawyers, etc., etc."

Not what de Blasio wanted
"I remember that hearing like it was yesterday. And one of [de Blasio's] big concerns then was that the city wasn't clear what the City of New York would get out of it," said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in a phone interview May 9. "He felt the City of New York was not playing a big enough role in the process. And I think that's what happened."

The City signed a typical Bloomberg-era contract with a private company, Neustar, Inc., which is administering .nyc.

The city is guaranteed $3.6 million over five years and if the amount the city earns each year ever falls below 40 percent of Neustar's gross revenue for .nyc, the company will kick in even more. So if .nyc is a wild success, the city — as well as Neustar — will make millions and if it's a failure, Neustar absorbs the cost and the city doesn't take the hit. Neustar even covered the $185,000 ICANN application fee.

The selection of Neustar — a publicly traded company that is in the business of administering top-level domains and already controls .biz and .us — is not without some controversy. In 2009, the City issued an RFP for a private vendor to administer the .nyc domain. Then, a three-year wait until just before an ICANN expansion deadline and the City awarded the contract to Neustar after a last-minute daytime public hearing on a Friday in March 2012. Five people testified at that hearing and many of New York's civic tech community were outraged at the lack of notice and lack of open debate on the issue.

One of the people upset about the lack of public debate was Thomas Lowenhaupt, a Jackson Heights resident and longtime member of Queens Community Board 3. Lowenhaupt currently sits on the mayor's .nyc advisory group, which he says the Bloomberg administration created and put him on after he tried to stop the City from going ahead with its Neustar plan by filing a formal objection with ICANN. Lowenhaupt is credited as the city's first advocate for a .nyc domain. In 2001, he spearheaded a CB 3 resolution calling on the City to acquire .nyc and in 2005 he created a non-profit called "Connecting.nyc" to continue his .nyc mission of creating a public portal where .nyc becomes a shared resource for all things New York instead of a corporate playground. He's not happy with how the City has proceeded and thinks the City is squandering an opportunity to use .nyc to help promote community and public interests in favor of money-making ones.

"The way we are going now is the Bloomberg way, still following that plan that these names, premium names will be set aside and auctioned off to highest bidders. That's the way things usually work but that's not exactly a progressive administration," Lowenhaupt said in a phone interview. He recently listed on his website progressive ways de Blasio can change the planned rollout.

In contrast to the mayor's 2008 thoughts, his administration now seems to be OK with a private company administering .nyc.

"Frankly I think that it makes sense for a contractor to be leading up the actual registry process here. What we're talking about here is a very technical process," said Jeff Merritt, a senior advisor in the mayor's office who is heading up .nyc for the de Blasio administration. "If the city were to manage this process it'd be creating this whole bureaucracy."

Since becoming mayor, de Blasio has done little to change the .nyc path started by the previous administration. Granted, his hands are tied to the existing contract, but critics argue he can still do more. One small change since he took over at City Hall is his quietly boosting the frequency of meetings for the .nyc advisory group so that it now meets every month. The goal of the group, which includes 11 New Yorkers from the civic tech community and representatives from various business improvement districts, is to provide input on how the City implements .nyc.

Though there are more meetings than there were under Bloomberg, the advisory group meetings are closed to the public, so the debate about the future of .nyc is still very much behind closed doors. Gotham Gazette was denied attending the May 12 meeting.

One thing is clear, the first of four phases has started and the others will follow, as the contract dictates, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions and concerns about how the next five months are going to play out.

Small businesses
For small businesses in the city that have had a tough time finding a simple, recognizable .com address, the launch of .nyc is a great opportunity to change that.

"We are in many ways trying to create a space in the chaotic world of the web that gives people comfort, that says this is New York City," said Merritt.

One rule for registering a .nyc is having a physical address in the five boroughs (not including a P.O. Box), so the competition is much smaller than it is for claiming a .com. However, businesses with an established .com address will likely have to claim the corresponding .nyc address in defense, to stop someone else from snatching it up.

"Imagine you own a patch of land and have made it valuable through careful farming practices – good seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, and bees to pollinate the crops. But now someone comes along and says, 'We will divide your land into smaller parcels and charge you to protect each of them,'" wrote Esther Dyson, who sits on the mayor's .nyc advisory board and is former chair of the ICANN board, after ICANN decided to start registering more TLDs.

The administration says .nyc is about opportunity and not making money.

"The goal here wasn't, 'Can we find a way to create more revenue for the city?' It was trying to find ways to create opportunities for New Yorkers," Merritt said.

Lowenhaupt disagrees. His idea, which has the support of Brewer, is to create a portal for New York City-based organizations and businesses to share a presence online. So rather than pizza.nyc being sold to the highest bidder, which he says could very well be Pizza Hut or Domino's, it could be a portal to list all the pizza shops in the city and give equal play to the mom and pop pizza shops. As it stands now, pizza.nyc, as well as many general product names will likely be auctioned to the highest bidder during the "landrush" phase in August.

During this "landrush," if more than one New Yorker puts in a claim for an address, then that name will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Lowenhaupt's idea is to create a number of these portals so people in New York City could avoid using search engines and find a list of hotels at hotels.nyc or restaurants at dining.nyc or museums at museums.nyc.

"The current plan is crazy and short-sighted. Infrastructure should be used to serve the needs of everyone, not just the highest bidder. And TLDs are surely a form of civic infrastructure that belongs to all of us," wrote David Bollier, an Amherst-based author and expert on "the commons," where cultural and natural resources are available to all members of a society.

Lowenhaupt says he's worried valuable names will be snatched up by people with money to toss around. "Rupert Murdoch can pull change out of his pocket to own news.nyc," he said.

When asked if she thought the City was doing enough to help small businesses, Brewer said she's not sure. "I'm a little apprehensive," she said. "This whole .nyc should be for small businesses: the coffee shop, the pizza shop, the hat shop, the manufacturer. That's what I envisioned."

Brewer added that she would have preferred the City have a "more strenuous conversation" about helping small businesses. She said she hopes the administration will listen to the concerns of the advisory group.

"We are going to watch it like a hawk and make sure that the highest levels of government are paying attention to what the advisory group is doing," she said.

The Department of Small Business Services has reached out to business improvement districts (BIDs) across the city and the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT) says it is planning a meeting in late May for BIDs to learn more about acquiring .nyc addresses.

Council Member Robert E. Cornegy, Jr., chair of the council's small business committee, wrote in an e-mail that he's thinks .nyc is "an incredible opportunity," but he has concerns.

"However, the benefit to small businesses will be determined in great part by how the domains are priced, how access is expanded following the sunrise period and whether this initiative is paired with programs that help our local businesses bridge the digital divide and establish an online presence," he wrote.

.Astoria, .Riverdale and .Greenpoint
Thousands of web addresses will not be available to the public ever. The City is blocking about 3,000 names that are related to city entities or landmarks, including names related to city agencies like the NYPD or FDNY. "If the City did not pull off those names, we'd be setting ourselves up for lots and lots of legal battles," said Merritt.

The City is also working on a way to reserve neighborhood names for non-profits that could be used as a tool for community building, something Merritt says was discussed last year but the current administration is making a reality. However, it is unclear what names the City has reserved and what non-profits will get preference for these addresses.

Neither list has been made publicly available, though at a December workshop hosted by DoITT, Jeff Neuman from Neustar said they would be at some point.

"All these lists will be publicly available so that everybody can see. Our goal with everything we do is to be as open and transparent as possible so if there's something you're not seeing, something you'd like access to, please let us know. Our goal is to run this in a responsible manner to make it a TLD that benefits all New Yorkers," Neuman said.

Cyber Squatting
One of the practices de Blasio railed against in 2008 was people grabbing up names and then re-selling them for a profit, something often referred to as cyber squatting.

"There is really nothing within our power to be able to prevent any kind of secondary market from developing," Neuman said at the December workshop.

But because a requirement to own a .nyc address is to have a real presence in New York City, the secondhand market would be a local one.

When asked about local cybersquatting, Merritt said they are not sure what will happen.

"A lot of this remains to be seen. This is definitely a first in terms of the web. Our effort is to do as much public outreach as possible to small businesses and entities in New York to make them aware of this opportunity," he said.

Address Loophole?
The physical address requirement seems like it'd be easy to find a way around. There are companies online that charge a monthly fee to take in your mail, answer your phone and accept your faxes — all with a real local address and telephone number in Manhattan.

"I can get a prestigious 5th Avenue address for $25 online. They will take in my mail ... they will fax it to me or e-mail it to me. You don't ever have to step foot in the city to have a New York City address, so just the P.O. box [rule] is not adequate," said Lowenhaupt.

Neustar will establish a process where someone can file a complaint against an entity they believe is not actually in New York City.

Lowenhaupt advocates for a more rigorous application process like London has instituted for .london, designed to give priority to London-based individuals, businesses and entities and that allows applicants to submit evidence to prove they deserve the name over others.

'Heart and Soul'
New York City is the first U.S. city to acquire its own TLD, so how the next five months play out here will likely affect how other cities proceed. The glut of new TLDs into the web will surely cause some confusion and nobody knows whether these new TLDs are going to work out the way their buyers want them to. Since prices are going to be determined by demand, it's unclear just how much a .nyc address may cost to renew in years to come.

Though the first phase has begun, the de Blasio administration has until the August landrush to try to make changes to the City's plan.

Lowenhaupt said he wants to see .nyc become a trusted domain, but that as it stands now that will not be the case.

"I think this thing should be thought out. Selling names for .nyc willy nilly just to make some money is not the public interest approach," he said. "It is our heart and soul and everything we do in this digital age is going to be under that name."

***
by Adam Wisnieski for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette


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