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Plural gTLDs not confusing, says ICANN (and two gotchas proving it wrong)

Dozens of new gTLD applicants will be breathing a sigh of relief this morning as ICANN said it will allow single and plural versions of the same gTLD to co-exist after all.

The decision, made Tuesday by ICANN’s New gTLD Program Committee, affects at least 98 applications. It said:

NGPC has determined that no changes are needed to the existing mechanisms in the Applicant Guidebook to address potential consumer confusion resulting from allowing singular and plural versions of the same string.

It was in response to the Governmental Advisory Committee, which had advised ICANN to “reconsider its decision to allow singular and plural versions of the same strings.”

Because of the wording of the advice, ICANN is able to disagree with the the GAC’s opinion that “singular and plural versions of the string as a TLD could lead to potential consumer confusion” without triggering its bylaws provision that forces it into time-consuming GAC negotiations.

By “reconsidering” plural/singular coexistence and not doing anything, it has stuck to the letter of the advice.

In its reconsideration it reconsiderated whether it should overturn the findings of its independent String Similarity Panel, which did not believe any plural/singular pairs were confusingly visually similar.

It also used the coexistence of second-level plural and singular domains, registered to different people, as evidence that users would not find similar coexistence at the top level confusing.

The decision has potentially far-reaching consequences on the new gTLD program.

First, it could mean that some plural/singular pairs will be allowed to exist while others will not.

There are a handful of formal String Confusion Objections filed by applicants for gTLDs that have singular or plural competitors in the current round.

These string pairs are not currently in contention sets, but if the objectors prevail only one of the strings will survive to delegation.

Other string pairs have no objections and will be allowed to coexist. This may be fair in a sense, but it’s not uniform nor predictable.

(One wonders if the String Confusion Objection arbitration panels will use ICANN’s ruling this week in their own decision-making process, which could open a can of worms.)

Second, I think the decision might encourage bad business practices by registries.

My beef with coexistence

I don’t think coexistence is a wholly terrible idea, but I do think it will have some negative effects, as I’ve expressed in the past.

First, I think it’s going to lead to millions of unnecessary defensive registrations.

And by “defensive” I’m not talking about companies protecting their trademarks. Whether you think they’re adequate or not, trademark owners already have protections in new gTLDs.

I’m talking about regular domain registrants, small businesses, entrepreneurs and so on. These people are going to find themselves buying two domains when they only need one.

Let’s say you’re Mad John’s Autos, and you’re registering madjohn.auto. You get to the checkout and Go Daddy offers you the matching .autos domain. Assuming similar pricing, you’d definitely register it, right?

You’ve always got to assume a certain subset of users will get confused and either wind up at a dead URL or a competitor’s site. It’s simpler just to defensively register both.

What if one was priced a little higher than the other? Maybe you’d still register it. How big would the price differential have to be before you decided not to buy the plural duplicate?

Buying two domains instead of one may not be a huge financial burden to individual registrants, but it’s going to lead to situations where gTLDs exist in symbiotic — or parasitic — pairs.

If you run the .auto registry, you may find that your plural competitor is spending so much on marketing .autos that you don’t need to lift a finger in order to sell millions of domain names.

Just make sure you’re partnered with the same registrars and bingo: you’re up-sell.

Attractive business plan, right? You may disagree, but when ICANN opens the floodgates for the second round of new gTLD applications in a couple years, we’ll find out for sure.

Two gotchas

Defenses of plural/singular gTLD coexistence often come from, unsurprisingly, the portfolio applicants that have applied for them and, presumably, may apply for them in future rounds.

“Singulars and plurals live together now on the [second-level domain] side,” Uniregistry said. “They create healthy competition and do not unduly confuse consumers to the point of annoyance.”

I wouldn’t disagree with that statement. Plural/singular coexistence may not confuse internet users to the point of danger or annoyance. But, I would argue, they do make people buy more domain names than they need to.

If you were buying autos.com today you’d definitely definitely buy auto.com as well and redirect it to autos.com. You’d be an idiot not too.

When I put this to Uniregistry execs privately several weeks ago, they disagreed with me. Nobody would bother with such duplicative/defensive domains, they said.

In response, I asked, cheekily: so why do you own uniregistries.com, redirecting it to uniregistry.com?

Another portfolio applicant, Donuts, also didn’t like the idea of plurals and singulars being mutually exclusive, according to this CircleID article. It doesn’t think they’re confusingly similar.

Yet a press release put out by the company last month accidentally said it planned to put its application for .apartment to auction.

The problem is that Donuts hasn’t applied for .apartment, it has applied for .apartments.

I feel rotten for highlighting a simple typo by a fellow media professional (I make enough of those) but isn’t that what we’re often talking about when discussing confusing similarity? Typos?

If the registry can get confused by its own applied-for strings, doesn’t that mean internet users will as well?

Oh, I’m a cybersquatter

Interestingly, ICANN’s belief that plurals are not confusing appears to be institutional.

At least, I discovered this morning that icanns.org, the plural of its primary domain, was available for registration.

So I bought it.

Let’s see how much traffic it gets.

If I get hit by a UDRP, that could be interesting too.