Why Is Uncle Sam Dictating .Us Policy?

Opinion: This is a case study in how bad the government can be at some things, especially when it's uninterested in public input.

Its not often that the registry for a major top-level domain changes. It might be about to happen with the .us domain though. Some people care, but very few.

In the domain name business its generally understood that theres only one TLD (top-level domain) that matters: .com. Two others, .net and .org, are famous and better than nothing, but with a few idiosyncratic exceptions, youre much better off owning a .com domain than the .net or .org version. The growth of .com also overwhelms .net and .org. A few country code domains, .uk and .de especially, have enjoyed good growth, but theyre basically special cases. And some TLDs, like .travel and .pro, are massive flops.

If anything had a chance in the United States to be a big deal it was .us. But this domain has been a massive failure, generally out of bad leadership and an absence of effective marketing. Now the contract to operate the domain will be reassigned by the Department of Commerce and there wont even be a public hearing. The closing time for bids (PDF) is this coming Monday, July 30.


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NeuStar, which also operated the North American Numbering Plan and the .biz TLD, got control of .us in 2001. Prior to that it was a heavily restricted domain, generally reserved for state and local governments. Even they often went with .gov or even .com domains. The NeuStar contract changed that by opening the domain up to anyone.

The contract process itself was a sign of things to come. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) board member Karl Auerbach complained, "It was done without very good procedures within the Department of Commerce. Its egregious that the public had so little input in the sale of our countrys name." There was speculation that the Department of Commerce was trying to be heavy-handed with Network Solutions/VeriSign by having two heavyweight domains (.biz and .us) go to a competitor.

You can stop laughing now. Yes, it wouldnt be the last thing the administration would botch, but its up there in terms of complete failures. The .biz and .us domains have been stinkers and VeriSign is living fat off the .com golden goose.

How popular has the .us domain been? The only famous domain name I can think of is del.icio.us, and thats not even playing on the "United States" connection. (Im sure Im missing some; please load up the Talkback section with them.) And heres an interesting section from the Commerce RFQ (request for quotation) that gives a sense of how hot .us is:

"The Dot Kids Act ... requires the initial and successor contractors to establish, maintain and operate a second-level domain in the usTLD to provide a safe space on the Internet for children aged 13 and younger. Consequently, kids.us sites must comply with certain content standards and exclude hyperlinks that direct visitors away from the kids.us domain. Between 2004, the first full year of the kids.us domains operation, and 2006, registrations declined from 1505 to 1145, while active approved sites decreased from 23 to 20 during the same period. The current contractors annual wholesale price to registrars for each kids.us domain name is $6 and the annual content management fee charged to each .us domain name holder is $125. The DoC seeks proposals to increase utilization and awareness of the kids.us domain. [Emphasis mine]"

The .us domain was burdened with some rules that other domains dont have, such as a prohibition on anonymous registration services and this .kids nonsense. But the real problem is the fact that the DOC, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, wants to retain too much control and doesnt seem interested in public input.

The .us domain was supposed to have a Policy Council to guide the operation of the domain. Because the DOC was uninterested in cooperating with it, the group effectively disbanded after its last meeting (PDF) in January 2003. The council made policy recommendations that were rejected without comment by DOC.

Why wasnt there a public comment period before the RFQ went out? It would appear that the DOC prefers .us to be a failed domain under its thumb than a successful domain responding to public and market interests. You dont need an MBA to see the marketing potential of .us if it were properly handled, and you dont need to be Milton Friedman to see that the government doesnt know how to run a domain registry properly. Unfortunately, its probably too late for .us, and it will languish for at least a few more years.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at larryseltzer@ziffdavis.com.

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