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.

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