Can .pet and .pets co-exist peacefully on the internet? Or would they create such confusion among internet users that the whole new gTLD program would look irresponsible and foolish?
That’s the question ICANN is due to face today, as constituents line up at the public forum in Beijing to question its board of directors about the problem of plurals in new gTLDs.
The Governmental Advisory Committee, the Business Constituency, the Intellectual Property Constituency and others have all openly questioned the sanity of allowing plurals in recent days.
Right now there are 59 collisions between singular and plural gTLD applications (in English, at least, according to my analysis), involving 23 unique string pairs.
These are: .accountant(s), .auto(s), career(s), .car(s), .coupon(s), .cruise(s), .deal(s), .fan(s), .game(s), .gift(s), .home(s), .hotel(s), .kid(s), .loan(s), .market(s), .new(s), .pet(s), .photo(s), .review(s), .sport(s), .tour(s), .web(s) and .work(s).
None of these singular/plural clashes are currently in contention sets with each other, meaning there’s nothing to stop them all being delegated by ICANN. We could have a .loan alongside a .loans a year from now.
It seems to be only common sense that these clashes will cause frequent confusion. I doubt many would pass the longstanding “shouted across a crowded bar” test for URL clarity.
Would you want to register a .photo domain if you knew .photos was also available, and vice versa? If you did, wouldn’t you also want to register the .photos equivalent, just in case?
That’s one of the things ICANN’s commercial stakeholders are worried about: 23 extra TLDs means 23 extra defensive registrations for every brand they want to protect.
But there’s also the risk that gTLD registries that are successful in this application round will feel obliged to apply for the plurals of their strings in future rounds for defensive purposes.
The plurals issue also highlights shortcomings in how the new gTLD program was structured.
Why is this happening?
Unless two companies applied for the exact same strings, there are only two ways they could end up in a contention set together.
The first way was if the String Similarity Panel decided that the two strings were too visually similar to be allowed to co-exist, and that didn’t happen in the case of plurals. The panel only decided two things in the end: that I and l are confusingly similar, and that rn and m are confusingly similar.
To date, nobody except the Panel and ICANN knows what the logic behind this decision was, but it appears to be based on a very narrow (though not unreasonable) interpretation of what constitutes visual similarity.
The second way to end up in a contention set was to file a successful String Confusion Objection, or to be on the receiving end of one.
But of the 33 such objections filed, only 11 were filed against plurals, covering only six new gTLD strings in total: .pets, .tours, .webs, .games, .cars, and .kids. There was also an objection to .tvs, due to a clash with the existing ccTLD .tv.
(UPDATE: it appears that only approximately half of the String Similarity Objections filed have actually been revealed to date).
The main reason there weren’t more objections is that only existing registries and new gTLD applicants had standing to file an objection. Nobody else was allowed to.
Applicants were of course disincentivized from filing objections. Winning a String Confusion Objection doesn’t kill off your rival if you’re an applicant, it merely places both applications in a contention set.
Being in a contention set means you’re going to have to pay money to get rid of your competitor, either by negotiating some kind of private deal or by punching it out at auction.
By not filing objections, applicants in singular/plural situations risk looking like they don’t care about user confusion or are blasé about forcing defensive registrations.
(And by defensive registrations, remember here we’re not only talking about trademark owners, we’re talking about every potential future registrant in those gTLDs.)
They do have the slight excuse that they were only given a week or so to file objections after the results of the String Similarity Panel’s deliberations, delayed several times, were revealed.
There’s also the possibility that some of the apparent clashes won’t be as big of a concern in the marketplace due to, for example, registration restrictions.
What happens next?
The GAC is almost certain to issue advice about plurals in the next day or two, having brought the topic up with ICANN’s board of directors earlier this week.
The Business Constituency is also expected to make a few proposals directly to the board during the Public Forum in Beijing, Thursday afternoon local time.
The BC is likely to suggest, for example, that if one String Similarity Objection decision finds that a plural and a singular are confusingly similar, then that ruling should apply to all plural clashes, even if no objection has been filed.
It’s an audacious idea: it would certainly do the trick, but it would require some severe goal-post moving by ICANN at a time when it’s already under fire for pulling last-minute stunts on applicants.
It would also risk capturing fringe cases of strings that look plural but, in the context they are used in everyday language, are not (such as .new and .news).
Without some kind of action, however, ICANN is pretty much guaranteed to attract negative publicity.
Looking like it’s the stooge of the domain name industry, forcing regular registrants to double-buy their domains to the enrichment of registries and registrars, could look bad.