A company backed by Microsoft Corp. and some cell phone industry heavyweights is causing a stir with new rules that accompany the Web site addresses its now distributing.
The firm, mTLD Top Level Domain Inc., based in Dublin, Ireland, requires a certain look and feel for Web sites located at addresses that end in ".mobi," its new top level domain (TLD) that signals the site is designed to be viewed on cell phones.
The mTLD rules, which are a first, pose a significant question about the extent to which private corporations can control the use of TLDs and what are valid reasons to do so. The creators of the Internets intricate addressing scheme, of which TLDs are a major part, envisioned a never-ending array of freely available Web addresses for anyone willing to pay administrative fees charged by mTLD and other registries.
Yet mTLD now has unprecedented control over who will get the domains—control that runs counter to the Nets original intent of being available to anyone and on any device. Rather than being open to anyone, as is usually the practice for TLD registries, .mobi addresses are only for Web site operators willing to design their sites a certain way. Those that dont conform may be shut down.
Perhaps the most blistering condemnation of .Mobi is from Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the Web 15 years ago. Berners-Lee has continuously singled out the .mobi because while it might encourage the development of desperately needed mobile content, he does not believe that need warrants a separate TLD. "It would be great if new domains were opened, but ones with social or technology context that make a commitment to the social system and to the integrity of that piece of the Web," he said during a public appearance last year.
The criticisms are surfacing once again now that mTLD has activated the TLD, which took place this week, and as a result began distributing the addresses to a few select customers. The general release is scheduled for as soon as March of next year.
Neil Edwards, mTLD general manager, is used to the hubris, but disagrees with most of the arguments hes heard in the last few weeks since mTLD was awarded the .mobi franchise. He expects only "a tiny percentage of" the Internet community to balk at the requirements when they go into effect in the first half of 2006.
Yet, the problems arent going to go away, he adds, foreshadowing an Internet community divided about a key question of how to embrace cell phones, which are considered the next great Internet access point. A growing number of people, particularly in developing nations, are introduced to the Internet through their cell phones. But overall, just a scant 14 percent of the worlds 1.5 billion cell phones regularly use their built-in Internet capability.
"Its a given, there will be people who are upset by this," Edwards said during a recent interview. "The challenge were trying to address is that TLDs were built for personal computers and wired broadband connection. The billion-strong constituency we represent and whove invested in our company have different needs."
To understand the controversy, one must realize the importance of TLDs, better known as the last few letters of a Web address.
TLDs provide vital routing instructions, qualify the type of Web site at the address, as well as serve as the basis for how Web addresses are made available from the Internets leading authority, ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN doles out entire TLDs worth of Web addresses to private companies it feels responsible enough to distribute them to the general public.
ICANN has so far not allowed any registries to impose anything more than the simplest of requirements on Web site operators they deal with.
Whats roiling the industry is that, before mTLD, never has any TLD registry required so much of the Web site operators, and to such a great extent.
While accepting of the arguments against his companys efforts, mTLDs Evans blisters at the exacting controversy over mTLDs supposed "walled garden" approach. Critics contend Microsoft, European cell phone giant Vodafone, handset makers Nokia and Samsung, plus other mTLD partners are creating their own Internet for use only by the tens of millions of cell phone subscribers and handset owners the companies represent.
Rather, mTLD Top Level Domain says its acting in everyones best interests by "a few simple requirements" to promote an easy-to-use and dependable Internet experience on cell phones, which history has shown has been anything but.
Companies that register a .mobi domain name must conform to rules that limit the size of graphics on a site and tailor the design to fit a small screen. The Web site will also detect what kind of device is attempting to connect; if a PC tries to connect to a .mobi site, for example, it might be forwarded to a different Web site designed for computers.
"Are we creating a second Internet? The answer is no?," Edwards said of the controversy surrounding the rules. "Im not sure what else we can do from a standards or public trust perspective to be more transparent. We picked the approach that we are part of the public Internet and operate under agreements approved by regulators."
mTLD appears on the scene at a rather inopportune time and exposes an even broader issue at work. The hullabaloo probably wouldnt have elevated to its current level if not for the supposedly haphazard nature of ICANN enforcement.
ICANNs detractors, which include major TLD dispenser VeriSign Inc., say its rules and practices are so mysterious, they are a drag on private research and development. So sometimes corporations have no choice but to appear to act out of turn.
But things are destined to change. A recently settled lawsuit filed against ICANN by VeriSign, which controls the flow of .com Web addresses, goes a long way towards providing the clarity the Internet industry demands, said ICANN President Paul Twomey.
The settlement, made public Monday, also contains a framework for ICANN to work with in the future, such as setting a 90-day cap on the time to make decisions on particular issues. Couple those developments with at least three separate initiatives ICANNs commenced on its own to tighten up its rules and procedures, Twomey said.
"A better framework is necessary," he said during a recent interview.