WASHINGTON – The U.S. government wants to relinquish control of the Web. But the alternative really dot-sucks.
Going back almost to the days when Al Gore invented the Internet, the federal government has been in charge of online addresses through its contract with the California-based nonprofit ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Now, responding to growing international complaints because of the Edward Snowden affair, the feds are extricating themselves from this Series of Tubes.
But, as is usually the case with deregulation, installing private-sector foxes as guards of public-good henhouses can get messy. Thus did a House Judiciary subcommittee find itself holding a hearing Wednesday on “The .Sucks Domain.” Turns out a company called Vox Populi, awarded the new “.sucks” top-level domain by ICANN, is charging $249 to people who want to register a dot-sucks domain – but $2,499 to brand owners who want to buy a dot-sucks domain defensively.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the subcommittee’s chairman, said he wanted to know “what should be learned before sites such as dot-sucks, dot-porn or dot-ihatecongress are put on the Internet. I know that the dot-Ihatecongress would be well sold, perhaps oversubscribed. The question is … have we gotten into a business model that was never envisioned?”
Apparently so – and for those who trust in the Wild West of unregulated markets, this really dot-blows.
“I understand there are over 65,000 dot-coms that incorporate the word ‘sucks,’” the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York posited. “Shouldn’t these be equally concerning?”
A witness confirmed that “’sucks’ shows up plenty of different places” – which got Issa thinking.
“I looked, and jerrynadlersucks.com and -.org are both available,” he said. “Both darrellissasucks.com and -org, for anyone that wants them, are available, and I’m sure someone will find them. But they are in fact at GoDaddy, $9.99 and $7.99 respectively.”
“We’re not in great demand,” Nadler observed.
“We’re not in great demand,” Issa agreed.
Phil Corwin, a witness from the Internet Commerce Association, explained to the lawmakers that “there’s a big difference between, uh, darrellissasucks.com – excuse me for saying that. It’s not my personal belief.”
“The hearing is young,” Issa pointed out.
The difference, Corwin continued, “is you could still acquire it for $9.99 a year, not $2,500 a year.”
This sounded like a bargain. I went to GoDaddy.com, as Issa recommended – but somebody had just bought darrellissasucks.com. Jerrynadlersucks.com remained available, but I opted to buy darrellissasucks.org instead – and I am willing to sell it to him at a reasonable markup.
Issa, explaining the problem with the dot-sucks domain, said that “you’re given an opportunity to bid, if you’re the proper name owner, $2,500, with no guarantee that you won’t be overbid by somebody who hates you more than you love your own name.”
That’s why I think Issa, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, will bid generously for darrellissasucks.org: Nobody hates Issa more than he loves his own name.
The whole concept seemed to trouble Rep. Blake Fahrenthold, R-Texas. “If I have to register blake.com, blake.net, blake.org, blake.biz, blake.us, blake sucks, you know, where does it stop?” he asked, arguing that it was essentially “extorting companies to register potentially thousands of variations of their domain names.”
Corwin fanned Fahrenthold’s fears: “Why wouldn’t we see, in the second round, applications for dot-liar, dot-criminal, dot-blows?”
Issa, suffering from low visibility since he had to surrender chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee this year, was out of practice. Attempting to introduce witness Steve DelBianco of NetChoice, he said: “Mr. Steve, uh, DeBank – this is not going to be my day.” Calling on DelBianco a second time, Issa said: “Mr. Dela – I’m doing great, and it’s a famous name, too. Uh, De – DelBianco.”
The witnesses – whatever their names – told stories of ICANN blocking legitimate businesses (such as Amazon) from buying top-level domains while doing nothing to stop businesses that illegally sell drugs. The general consensus, as described by witness Jonathan Zuck, who represents app designers: ICANN is not “ready to be independent of the United States government.”
Issa worried aloud that businesses would have to buy thousands of sites to protect themselves, including “dot-saugt,” German for “dot-sucks.” “I have no idea what it would be in Italian, in Chinese,” he added, aghast that destructive domain names might proliferate “simply to gain more money.”
That’s what happens when the government gives the free-market free rein, Mr. Chairman. Now, how much are you going to pay me for darrellissasucks.org?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.