New York has a new ambition: To be the first city in the world to use its top-level domain — .nyc — not just for generating revenue from virtual real estate or promoting tourist traps, but as a digital means for creating a real sense of place and community. But a public discussion session at Brooklyn Law School on Monday night suggested that the details are complex when you’re aiming for what the city’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot called a "geographic integrity [that] has rarely been achieved online."
In July, ICANN, the California non-profit that coordinates the Internet’s operations, approved .nyc, joining a class that includes .miami, .vegas, .moscow and .tokyo, as part of a sometimes-controversial expansion begun in 2012 of what are known as "generic top-level domains." New York awarded a revenue-splitting contract for management of the domain to Neustar, a company based in Sterling, Va. Dot-nyc domains will start going out in the spring, and Haot pledged at the event that "we’ll be one of the only cities in the U.S. to be using it as a real public public mechanism for enhancing the fabric of the city."
(In the mid-1980s, the networking community created the original seven top-level domains — .edu, .gov, .com, .mil, .org, .net and .int — as a way of giving order to the burgeoning network of networks that we would come to call the Internet. Before TLDs arrived, every host computer adopted a single name. Recalled one programmer involved in those early days, "everyone wanted to be named Frodo.")
To limit .nyc domains to real New Yorkers and New York-based businesses and organizations, Neustar will require that applications prove a "nexus," or geographic connection to one of the five boroughs of New York City. "We really want to protect the integrity of the good name of the city," Haot said. "We don’t want this to be authoritarian, [but] we want to make sure it means something." Possessing a .nyc address, said Jeff Neuman, vice president of registry services at Neustar, has to mean "I am a New Yorker." Contrast that with how a TLD like ".ly" has little to do with Libya, and has instead become a popular way of branding web-based tech start-ups.
The city has been criticized for being opaque about its plans, though some early critics are pleased with how they’re shaping up. Tom Lowenhaupt is a long-time advocate of what his group, ConnectingNYC, calls using .nyc as "infrastructure supportive of the public interest." Lowenhaupt criticized the city’s initial approach to confirming an applicant’s ties to the city as simply "check the box" — to his approval, the process now requires a street address. For businesses, that’s any place of commerce in the city. For individuals, it must be a primary residence.
Lowenhaupt, though, does wonder how those addresses will be validated during the expected early rush on .nyc domains. That will be part of Neustar’s job, under an agreement in which the company claims 60 percent of revenue on domain sales, with the rest going to the city.
A tentative timeline released by the city Monday night has the first .nyc domains being sold in May. First up is a Trademarks Sunrise period, a 45-day stretch during which trademark holders will be able to claim matching domains. Starting in June or July, there will be a month-long opportunity for government-affiliated organizations and programs to claim relevant domains, such as DOiTT.nyc for the city’s Department of Technology and Telecommunications.
In August begins a 60-day "land rush" period, during which locals can put in an application for domains at a wholesale cost of $30, plus a minimum $20 annual registration fee; duplication applications will be settled by auction. In October, a general registration period opens up, where domains will be available on a first-come, first-served basis at a wholesale cost of $20.
One challenge that the city has moved to address is the question of especially desirable domains that don’t intuitively belong to any one person or entity, like Music.nyc, Food.nyc, or Elections.nyc or neighborhood names like Harlem.nyc, LongIslandCity.nyc or ParkSlope.nyc. Some advocates had fretted that while such sites could serve a community role, like hosting local directories, they might instead be claimed for more limited and self-serving uses. Last year, the city floated the notion of holding back some names for "marketing purposes." But as Haot explained last night, in recent months it had come to wonder, "is the city the best entity to decide who gets what name?"
Instead, as things stand, certain premium names will be placed on a yet-to-be-finalized reserve list. Hoping to avoid the "backdoor deals" and opaque brokering that can mark domain name sales, Neuman said, the city has opted to hold an online public auction for that collection of addresses. "We can’t prevent the secondary market from occurring," Neuman said, referring to resales of purchased domains. Second-hand owners will also be required to prove a geographic nexus with the city. Once the holder of a .nyc domain leaves the city, Haot said, "you no longer can legally have that name."
David Solomonoff, president of the Internet Society of New York, asked Haot whether a site like TheGovernmentIsCorrupt.nyc might be allowed. The legendary Seven Dirty Words and their close cousins are off-limits, but "critical, totally fine," Haot said. "Anything protected by the First Amendment is allowed."
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.