RealTime IT News

A Kink in .Travel Plans

Robert Arbogast is one of many alternative domain name owners who are just now finding out their years-long investment in .travel might come to an end after a recent decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Arbogast, the owner of www.tickets.travel on New.net's alternative domain name service, might soon be dealing with a second .travel dealer now that ICANN is entering technical and commercial negotiations with the company for the .travel sponsored top-level domain (sTLD) Thursday.

The domain space, if approved by the Internet governing body, will be the seventh sTLD approved to run alongside the popular .com, .net and .org generic TLDs (gTLDs), opening up the congested name space market to new entrants.

However, ICANN's decision is bad news for the approximately 175 million Internet users who use New.net software to resolve domain names on their Web browsers.

"In the event a new .travel is released by ICANN, it would certainly add a layer of complexity if there is no coordination," said Dan Sheehy, New.net president, in an e-mail interview. "However, this will not only impact customers of New.net's .travel names, but those of Tralliance and the entire Internet user community due to the name conflict that would result between a new .travel extension and New.net's travel, which has been successfully operating for nearly four years now."

ICANN officials were not available for comment.

New.net, the brainchild of California investment firm idealab, was created in March 2001 as a shortcut for those frustrated by ICANN's slow progress in approving new TLDs.

New.net has offered shortcuts to names like .travel, .shop, .xxx and 25 other "alternative" domain name extensions for some time, all outside ICANN's fiefdom.

The shortcut comes in the form of a script that's installed on a person's computer or in the DNS servers of participating ISPs. When a person types in a Web address with an alternative domain extension like "www.america.travel," the script appends ".new.net" behind the scenes, taking the person instead to "www.america.travel.new.net," New.net's registry service for the alternative domain names.

It's similar in method to the way the rest of the Internet is run today: when someone types in "www.travel.com," it takes people first through the registry service at VeriSign, the managers of the .com space, where it's resolved with the IP address for that domain name. From there, the person downloads the Web page for that IP address. Everyone does it; even New.net's domain name is ultimately resolved through VeriSign's .net registry database.

With .travel in the running as an ICANN-approved TLD, millions of New.net users are going to run into problems getting to the right .travel page on their Web searches if it's approved: There will now be two .travel owners, one for "www.america.travel.new.net" and one for "www.america.travel."

Most Internet surfers don't have to worry; without the New.net software, they will go right to the "real" .travel extension. Even those with the software can uninstall the program if they so choose. But for those who get their Internet service from Earthlink , Tiscali or Tutopia, there could be some problems.

New.net is partnered with these three ISPs , which include the script in their DNS servers, thus automatically sending their users to the New.net domains. Between the ISPs and the people who have downloaded the software plug-in, New.net officials say approximately 175 million people are using their software, whether directly or indirectly.

EarthLink officials were not available by press time to comment on the effect a new .travel domain extension would have on its service. Officials at United Online, formerly known individually as Juno and NetZero, said they ended their partnership earlier this year, despite the fact they are prominently listed as one on New.net's Web site.

While at worst it's a nuisance for surfers, these developments are potentially devastating to some of the many New.net domain name owners who have an established business presence with the New.net service.

Kris DeSylvia is the domain owner of the Web site www.wtpdx.com, as well as the owner of New.net's "germany.travel" domain extension for her travel agency. She said she wasn't aware of the latest developments with Tralliance and ICANN and its ramifications on her Web site. Even more, she didn't know that not everyone surfing the Web could see her Web site, and feels she was misrepresented when she bought the domain.

Brad Copeland, a New.net spokesman, said customers have to check off on their registration agreement before buying a domain name at their site, which states that the number of potential viewers is limited. That information is also divulged on their home and FAQ pages in several different languages depending on the market they serve, Copeland said.

DeSylvia isn't the only one to think she was a TLD owner, though. During the public comment period of the ICANN review process, and before independent evaluators assessed the technical merits of the sTLD applicants, New.net domain owners chimed in with claims they owned or had rights to the .travel domains they purchased from New.net, suggesting the confusion isn't limited to a small number of people.

"I already had registered tourism.travel among several other .travel names through New.net and registerfly.com," posted Larry Wentz of West Fargo, N.D., in April. "I want to make it very clear to ICANN and Tralliance that those names are mine. Any other outcome will result in legal action -- plain and simple."

More complaints are sure to follow if and when ICANN blesses the Tralliance contract. Ron Andruff, president and CEO at Tralliance, feels New.net officials have tricked customers for years into thinking their domains were legitimate.

"That's the unfortunate part, because the area of top-level domains is very -- from a technical standpoint -- difficult for the average person to understand," he said. "When New.net presents itself as offering top-level domains when they are in fact third- and fourth-level domains, people don't realize what they're getting.

"I'm a little bit concerned about that, from the point of view that I feel that bona fide members of the travel and touring industry are being duped," he continued. "They've heard about .travel; they've been tracking the progress and when they hear from New.net that a domain is available, they buy it. That's unfortunate."

What's more unfortunate for New.net customers, and potential Tralliance customers, is the fact that Tralliance officials have no plans to "grandfather" them into the new registry if the registry bid is accepted by ICANN. Grandfathering would allow existing New.net domain owners to migrate their domain name over to Tralliance's registry.

"I would hope that we would be grandfathered in and that that would be something they would consider," Arbogast said.

However, as an sTLD, Tralliance sets its own policies, and once it has its contract signed with ICANN, it's pretty much free to pursue its own course of action. According to ICANN, one of the guidelines a sponsor (in this case Tralliance) must follow is to use its delegated authority in a way that's fair to the community of users it represents.

Sheehy said the matter of grandfathering New.net customers has been brought up before and should be an option.

"We have had discussions with Tralliance dating back to the ICANN conference in Montreal in 2003 and have discussed ways in which we might grandfather New.net registrants," he said. "Tralliance did not think it was appropriate to enter any sort of formal agreement prior to a decision from ICANN on their pending sTLD application.

"We still think that coordination would be in the best interest of Internet users and registrants," Sheehy added. "While the onus is clearly on ICANN (as the body responsible for technical coordination for Internet domains) to proactively avoid introducing conflict and confusion, as we've stated in the past we're willing to be flexible to help avoid any ultimate conflict should a new .travel domain some day see the light of day."

Andruff said there has never been an issue of grandfathering customers. However, New.net officials may try to present it as a discussion, saying anyone who wants a domain name under their .travel registry will have to go through the same process as everyone else.

"In terms of how this goes forward, in terms of what happens with their New.net domain names, that's between those companies that bought a New.net name and the company itself, New.net," he said.