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Plural gTLDs give ICANN huge credibility risk

Kevin Murphy, April 10, 2013, 22:13:00 (UTC), Domain Policy

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.

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Comments (16)

  1. NotComTom says:

    Totally Agree

    Users will look at .pet and .pets and think it’s all stupid.

    IMO same goes for .law, .lawyer, .attorney.

    Redundancies

    • Freddy says:

      this new gtld thing is a goldmine for lawyers and nothing else. Nobody needs those TLD´s there is no demand at all. We will end up with thousands new TLD´s after few years which nobody needs. They will maybe influence search, but they will definitely confuse the enduser. The Enduser is used to differentiate in a SLD, most users don’t know that so many TLD´s exist.

  2. Vladimir Shadrunov says:

    Not all of the objections have been published yet. We filed a string confusion objection. and it’s not in the list yet.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      Interesting. ICANN said there was 33, and all 33 have been published. Perhaps ICANN doesn’t have all the data yet.

      • Vladimir Shadrunov says:

        Perhaps 33 passed the review on that stage. We had to cure a deficiency which we did this week.

        • Kevin Murphy says:

          You’re right. There are about 67 objections in total, only 33 of which have been published. I’ve added a note to the post accordingly,

  3. This whole gTLD concept is the most ill concieved stepchild in Marketing History. This is turning into a Dog and Pony show that is laughable. WOW is all we can say!

    Gratefully, Jeff Schneider (Contact Group) (Metal Tiger)

  4. The concept of visual similarity is mention in the Applicant Guidebook only in connection with IDNs. was wondering why ICANN squeezed this into the ASCII space.

  5. Acro says:

    I believe .fungus and .fungi can co-exist. But there might be some confusion between .deer and .deer 😀

  6. RAYY says:

    more new confusion…..

    .big
    .bigger
    .biggest

    .work
    .works
    .worked
    .working

  7. Rolf Larsen says:

    Allowing plural and singular TLDs will not only add negatively to ICANNs credibility, but also confuse Internet users significantly. It was very surprising to see this outcome from the string similarity panel

  8. Rubens Kuhl says:

    The process lacked the ability for the Independent Objector to also file String Similarity Objections. The panel analysis was only visual, and the objection process looks at other angles like meaning and phonetic.

    What could still be done is to let the Independent Objector, only, have a window for filing string similarity objections. The lack of standing to object is what allowed plurals and .ong x .org similarities to go without proper review.

  9. Dave Tyrer says:

    There’s another highly serious issue of potential consumer confusion – this one applies to some of the proposed closed gTLDs.

    That is, ownership of a closed gTLD may give the owner an undeserved and unearned status as a respected authority in that field, instant bought credibility, even possessing an implied endorsement by industry federations or the government (in the minds of consumers).

    Imagine exclusive ownership of all domains in strings like:

    Warranty.insurance
    Official.forex
    Health.food
    Education.game
    Hospital.store
    Pharma.med
    Share.markets
    Internet.security
    Priority.mail (US Postal Service is objecting to this one, since they own a mark on the term.)

    I hope the GAC has closely studied the comments on the ICANN closed generic forum. The following two excerpts illustrate this risk. The first refers to insurance and the second to finance and insurance, but the principle applies to other generic words to different degrees.

    (Note, I think the .insurance application has been withdrawn)

    ———————— Q U O T E

    “The statements in these applications also evidence the potential to create consumer confusion. Consumers will likely be misled into believing that one entity represents the entire insurance industry, has established measures that have set them apart from (or is safer than) the rest of the industry, or has somehow obtained governmental license or endorsement that it is superior to other members of the larger insurance community.”

    American Insurance Association (AIA)

    ———————— Q U O T E

    “The public interest is particularly at risk in the case of generic terms that are defined by statute or other legal authority. For example, the term ‘IRA’ stands for ‘individual retirement account’ and has specific, statutorily defined meaning under United States tax law… Allowing any one company in a particular industry to obtain proprietary rights to a statutorily-defined term by using that term as a closed gTLD would suggest to the public that the company has a unique, preferred, or even government-sponsored role with respect to the products marketed under that domain.”

    TD Ameritrade
    Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.
    Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA)

    ————————————

  10. Rubens Kuhl says:

    Two more singular/plural pairs:
    .reise x .reisen
    .property x .properties

    Plurals are not formed only by adding “s” to the end of the string…

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