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It's the name, stupid

After two years of dialogue, White House tech adviser Ira Magaziner finally releases the long-awaited domain white paper. In brief, it washes its hands of the entire matter, seeking understanding and cooperation from all the Internet organizations.

After two years of dialogue with Internet organizations, Ira Magaziner, technology adviser to President Clinton, finally released the long-awaited white paper on domain names. In brief, it washes its hands of the entire matter, seeking understanding and cooperation from all the affected groups, which are supposed to be the gatekeepers of the so-called Internet society.

The issue at hand is nothing less than the rules to govern domain registrations. The difficulty is there are far too many applications for these names that can be supported by the system or its language.

Copping out, the Internet administrators proposed the idea of having the same domain name made available under different suffixes. For example, "kodak.com" could belong to Kodak, while "kodak.store" could belong to a little old lady in a bakery in Turkey who sells film on the side. "Kodak.nom," on the other hand, could belong to a teenager in Hong Kong who has a pen name for writing poetry on the workings of Mortal Kombat.

In this, we see nothing but a fiasco in the making.

There is a shortage of names for businesses, as few companies have unique, globally acceptable names. The large majority, in fact, have either highly diluted or confusingly similar nomenclatures. But come the millennium, only the very best names will dominate the global marketplace. Weak, nearly identical names will simply not survive the power of electronic commerce. Indeed, the duplication factor alone will bury most names in complex global listings on the Internet.

Businesses big and small are spending millions of dollars to seek recognition from shareholders and customers alike, struggling desperately to promote these confusing and sound-alike names.

Today, a globally protected, unique and powerful name is the single most important issue of corporate communication. While you read this column, several hundred more "new" names have been registered, by everyone from a shoe box-sized shop on Main Street to the conglomerate at the Triple-A shopping mall. These names could be for anything from a new global trademark to a tiny start-up service on the Internet.

Why such a gigantic problem? Here a few reasons:

  • The business community has not come to grips (yet) with the domain name dilemma. This largely is because domain issues are considered to be part of data processing and are usually left to the Webmasters to sort out. (This is as wise as leaving your choice of the purchase of a new home to your family baby-sitter.)

  • The consumer demand for addresses on the Web has skyrocketed, and what easier way for Web hosts to manage than to give their customers any names they choose? Domain name registration is a highly lucrative business. But as availability of new names is in crisis, the introduction of a single new suffix opens the door to millions of new names.

    So the recent request to bring new top-level domain suffixes into international standard (e.g., ".firm," ".shop," ".web," ".arts," ".rec," ".info," and ".nom") has been thrown (in hot-potato fashion) back into the hands of the Internet community, urging them to create some peace and harmony among themselves.

    The question now is where will these top-level domain name suffixes end, and at what point will there begin to be a demand for a dozen more additional ones, such as ".meat," ".beef," and, most fittingly, ".bull?"

  • How come a telephone listing or a car registration program works acceptably with everyone? After all, one cannot be listed in a phone directory as Abe Microsoft, Bob Coca-Cola, or even Michael Jackson (unless that is the name on the birth certificate). Similarly, one can't get an automobile registered under the name Federal Express or Brinks, for that matter.

    The common law approach of our civilization has protected the names of businesses and their trademarks and their relevant intellectual property, based on a very simple principle: One's business name will not be allowed to be confused with another's, and everyone will be protected from somebody else trying to confuse your business name with theirs.

    Before now, this law never suggested that since Kodak isn't available, one could simply register as "Kodak Plus" or "Kodak Super."

  • The Internet is one of the most extraordinary phenomena of this century and it is impacting every aspect of our lives. Still to come will be the far greater effect of electronic commerce. But the success of the latter will depend on the credibility of the system in ensuring proper identification of every business on the Net. Otherwise, electronic commerce will just be a fancy video game--and a deceptive one, at that.

    Will there be peace and harmony among the Internet gatekeepers? Not a chance. Will there be a solution for large and small businesses to have proper domain name registration? Maybe--with luck and hard work.

    Naseem Javed founded ABC Namebank International, a corporate name development company in New York and Toronto, Canada. He advises CEOs of Fortune 500 and other leading corporations on the strategic roles of corporate and brand names on the global scene. He lectures frequently on issues of business naming and has written several books, including Naming for Power: Creating Successful Names for the Business World.