Amazon.com's domain power play: We want to control them all

The e-commerce giant is applying for 76 new top-level domains -- and you won't be able to register any of them. What exactly does it have up its sleeve?

If Amazon.com gets its way -- and that's still a big "if" -- it will soon control 76 new domain extensions on the Internet. Most observers had expected the company to apply for .amazon and .kindle, but it seems that was just for starters: Amazon's ambitions also include a host of generic terms, including the likes of .free, .like, .game, and .shop.

Amazon is looking to nab a slew of compelling names, and if things unfold the way Amazon hopes, the outcome of this power play could reshape the world of Internet commerce -- at least as it relates to the behemoth that is Amazon. Here's the roster of terms Amazon is hoping to grab, excluding some non-Latin names:

Here are the new top-level domains Amazon wants to control. Illustration by James Martin

While Amazon aims to clean up in what's becoming the biggest Internet landgrab ever , the public -- individuals or business owners -- is fated to play the role of bystander in this cyberdrama. Amazon's names won't be open to the public in the way that, say, .com names are, where anyone can register AnythingTheyWant.com. Want to own Chocolate.shop? Forget it. As Amazon says clearly: "All domains in the .SHOP registry will remain the property of Amazon."

Amazon is among the biggest players partaking in the massive effort by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to vastly expand the domain name system. ICANN has let anyone with the money and technical chops bid for the right to run a so-called generic top-level domain, or gTLD, and last week it revealed which companies and entities are going for which gTLDs , also known as "strings."

Hints of Amazon's dot-strategy
So just what does Amazon want with all these strings? The company refused to discuss its applications or talk about future plans -- hardly a surprise considering that so many of Amazon's names, 30 in all, are contested and might not end up in its control. Google alone, which is going after 101 gTLDs, has applied for 23 of the same strings as Amazon . And the coming months will be filled with a public comment period; closed-door negotiations where competitors try to strike deals; and, ultimately, an ICANN-held auction for names that are still in contention. None of these new gTLDs will appear to the public until 2013.

To figure out what a company might do, all we have so far are the public applications for each gTLD, which live on ICANN's Web site. Applicants spell out -- often with a degree of lawyer-inspired wiggle room -- what they plan to do with each string should ICANN award them the 10-year-contract to run it. They can propose to run an open registry -- in the way that .com is open. They can run it closed, in which case the gTLD would be entirely for use by a single registrant (such as Google is proposing with .goog and .google). Or they could propose to run the gTLD with a range of restrictions, which often makes it effectively closed.

And that's the camp that all of Amazon's applications fall into. Dig into Amazon's applications -- whether it's .you, .book, .shop, or .news -- and you'll find similar language. Not just that "All domains in the .YOU registry will remain the property of Amazon," for example, but that "Amazon and its subsidiaries will be the only eligible registrants."

In short, said Philip Lodico, a managing partner with FairWindsPartners, which helps companies with domain strategies: "Unless you have some business connection to Amazon, it sounds like you won't be able to register Paul.you."

Which again raises the question: Just what will Amazon do with the gTLDs it does win? Part of what's driving this change is that ICANN is required to create competition in the domain landscape, and the big kahuna of all domain extensions -- .com, with more than 100 million names registered -- is pretty well spent.

A name like .shop, of course, could have wide appeal, which explains why nine other applicants, including Google, are also going after that string. As Amazon says in its .shop application, the company's plans are entirely focused around Amazon's business -- not that non-Amazon chocolate shop that wants to claim its piece of Internet real estate on .shop.

"Amazon intends to initially provision a relatively small number of domains in the .SHOP registry to support the business goals of Amazon," the company writes. And it uses similar language for .book and all the others.

Expanding its reach
But just because Amazon won't let you freely register names using these gTLDs, doesn't mean Amazon doesn't have plans for something big. While much of the attention around the new gTLDs has been about potential consumer confusion -- and there is sure to be some of that -- that assumes the companies that win these contracts plan to use their new gTLDs the way other registries have: They work like mad to market them, and try to partner with the biggest registrar, Go Daddy, as a way to promote their .com alternatives, whether it's .info, .us, .biz, or the latest entrant, the fast-growing .co .

What we see from looking at Amazon's applications is that's not that case at all, at least not for the strings Amazon wants. "People are saying ICANN is opening up this landscape, that this is a real estate play," says Lodico. "But selling names to the public isn't the only way to get a return on investment."

Amazon could, for instance, create destinations around .news or .shop or .book that it builds out in ways we can't yet foresee. Perhaps, as it builds out its publishing business, it will create a community of Amazon authors on .book or .author. Maybe that becomes a place to feature the books that Amazon customers are most talking about. And so on.

"Amazon has such a vast web of so many customers, that even if they're keeping it closed, they could certainly create a community that's pretty impressive," says Alex Berry, a vice president at Neustar, which managed the application process for 358 of the proposed gTLDs and runs the technology for several domain registries. "Brands can create communities of interest that didn't exist."

In some ways, giving Amazon total control over some generic names could be helpful, at least to other big companies. After all, the introduction of hundreds of new gTLDs that are completely open is all but certain to unleash a new wave of cybersquatting, where opportunistic domain speculators try to register, say, typos of Facebook and variations of Apple products on a new gTLD so that they can make money off the traffic or hope that Facebook and Apple will cut them a check rather than fight to get the names.

Companies are already concerned that they'll be forced to register names across scores of new gTLDs just to protect their brands -- something that Amazon, which fought cybersquatters for control of Amazonappliances.com and wwwAmazon.com, is quite familiar with.

In the end, even if Amazon wins a small portion of these names, the Amazon.com of the future -- or the .Amazon of the future -- will likely morph into a very different place.

 

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