The internet is changing. Last week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit entity that runs the web’s naming system, approved four new top-level domain names (TLDs—the bit after the final dot, such as .com): .онлайн and .сайт (Russian for “online” and “site”), .شبكة (Arabic for “web”) and .游戏 (Chinese for “game”).
So far, uncontroversial. But among the 1,410 TLDs for which nearly 2,000 companies applied are generic names such as .tickets, .app and .wtf as well as more specific ones, like .catholic and .amazon. Things are about to get messy.
Critics say that hundreds of new TLDs will confuse internet users, force companies to pre-emptively sign up across dozens of registers to prevent copyright theft, and confer a monopoly to whomever gains the rights to highly-sought after names. Mindful of the controversial nature of some applications, ICANN included a lengthy objection period. It also convenes regular meetings of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which advises it on matters of policy and objections from governments.
Well, the objections poured in. Australia was offended by the idea of .wtf (and plenty else besides), the Saudis couldn’t fathom why the Vatican should be given .catholic, Brazil argued against granting .amazon to Amazon, and India took issue with Chrysler’s application for .ram. Of these, India has perhaps the strongest case.
At the most recent meeting of the GAC in Durban last week, India again made clear (pdf) its discomfort with the idea of a .ram domain name. To many outside India, this is baffling. Why does India care about a line of pick-up trucks named for a male sheep?
The objection arises from an unfortunate homonym: Ram, pronounced with a long “a,” is also the name of one of Hinduism’s chief gods. “What if someone registers a domain name such as www.sex.ram? It could create a lot of communal tension in the country,” a government official told the Business Standard newspaper. India has argued that under the nation’s laws, trademarks can be denied if they stand to hurt religious sentiments.
The argument might sound disingenuous, but Indians often lose their collective sense of humor when it comes to matters of religion. Moreover, Ram is also a politically sensitive issue. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque claiming that it was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The act led to weeks of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.
More recently, the main opposition party warned the government against building a shipping lane between India and Sri Lanka on the grounds that dredging would destroy a land bridge supposedly built by Ram and his army of monkeys. Ominously, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party referenced the violence in the ’90s as reason to leave the bridge alone.
Chrysler, whose parent company Fiat has a presence in India, has been keen to accommodate the Indian government. The automobile giant promised to strictly control registration and said it will not allow third-parties to register sub-domains. It has also agreed to remove any address that India objects to. That seems like a sensible compromise and India would be wise to accept Chrysler’s assurances. Nobody, least of all a consumer-facing company mindful of PR ramifications, wants to be responsible for violence. But in an age of instant global communication, instant global misunderstanding is a very real possibility. Expect to see a lot more of it as ICANN wades through the applications.