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".edu" has for almost 30 years been the online signature of most education-related websites, but three years after the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers loosened restrictions on what comes after the “dot,” few institutions are jumping at the opportunity to brand their corner of the internet.
Until 2011, most of the internet could be neatly categorized into the familiar .com, .org and the other generic top-level domains, as well as country-code domains such as .us and .uk. While people and organizations have so far been able to personalize second-level domains -- think the “insidehighered” in insidehighered.com -- ICANN’s rule change clears the way for web addresses that end in .apple, .paris and .transformers, among others.
“There are roughly two dozen now, but soon, there could be hundreds,” the program's website reads.
Last week, Monash University in Melbourne announced it was not only the first Australian organization to have its request approved, but the first higher education institution worldwide.
The university can claim the title thanks to a proactive administration and a lucky lottery number, said Ian E. Tebbett, the institution’s chief information officer. ICANN received 1,930 applications during a three-month application window that closed in April 2012, assigning each a priority number. The organization then delved into several rounds of evaluation, gathered public input and solved disputes between rival applicants. The first approved domains began to trickle out in October 2013, and Monash -- No. 338 -- received its approval notice less than three months later.
“We got to the front of the queue for go-live, because we managed the whole effort from pre-application to go-live as a project, and we were always ready to move ahead as each step unfolded,” Tebbett said in an email. "In 2010 we had over two million web pages which had built up over a 20-year period. Although we're down to just one million pages now, the multiple purposes of the web and the sheer size of our institution represent a major challenge in stakeholder management and content structuring. We're willing to try anything that can help those who use our web resources have an easy time finding relevant and interesting content."
But claiming a generic domain name is much more complicated than navigating to a registrar such as GoDaddy or Namecheap, which offer domains for less than $10 a year. Tebbett described a comprehensive process that required Monash to present “evidence of ‘registry’ capability, information on how we would manage and operate the domain and evidence on corporate governance, management [and] financial worthiness. And a check for $180,000."
Essentially, the applicants agree to become custodians of Internet infrastructure, a responsibility that comes with a set of demanding requirements, said Jamie Hedlund, a senior ICANN executive.
“They’ve got to be able to show that they will run a part of the internet in a way that is not going to compromise security and stability -- particularly of the domain name system,” Hedlund said. That means making services accessible around the clock and protecting users while they browse.
The requirements are proving too onerous for many institutions, however, including the ones that can afford to pay for them. In addition to Monash, only two other universities applied in 2012: Bond University and La Trobe University, both also in Australia.
Stanford University considered applying but found the costs too prohibitive, said spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, who cited a $200,000 price tag that didn’t include annual fees.
“We also want to remain in the .edu space for its widely recognized, official confirmation that we are an educational institution,” Lapin said in an email. “As with most universities, we do use a few .org domains, including for athletics and Stanford Medicine, when the activity is not always directly related to our academic mission.”
Even Monash is not yet ready to abandon .edu. The university will phase in the new domain to "better represent Monash as a global institution" and “develop a new customer-focused University web presence,” according to a press release, but it “will continue its current online presence of monash.edu.”
If elite universities are turning down generic domain names, they may have limited significance in higher education -- especially since institutions that share a name with a region or a city may not be able to register theirs. The University of Georgia system, for example, would likely face objections from not only the state, but also the country.
In fact, anyone who owns a trademark could make the case that they have a right to the domain, Hedlund said. Since ICANN is bound by trademark laws, these disputes would have to be settled on a case-by-case basis.
“There’s no confusion between ‘Joe’s Pizza’ and ‘Joe’s Car Wash’ because they’re two totally different things,” Hedlund said. “On the internet, though, names only work if they’re unique.”
The potential naming conflict has kept institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley away from applying, spokesman Robert Sanders said in an email. "The idea has not been discussed by key campus constituents. Our first reaction, however, is that is wouldn’t be worth the money to register .berkeley, given that there are other Berkeleys around the world, which might trigger more opposition than would, for example, .harvard," he wrote.
For now, Hedlund said, institutions need not worry about cybersquatting -- the act of registering domains for no other purpose than to scalp them. First of all, ICANN is not accepting any new applications -- the organization will review its procedures after the 2012 applicants have all been processed. Moreover, the current evaluation process already includes “extensive trademark protections,” Hedlund said, and anyone can file an objection against a pending application (the domain registry that tried to apply for .university may be in trouble, in other words).
Hedlund acknowledged that three university applications among almost 2,000 is “admittedly not a lot,” but said future application rounds may bring more interest from the higher education sector.
“Users of the internet generally should care about the generic top-level domain program because it represents a major enhancement to the internet and the domain name space,” Hedlund said. While he expected many universities would register for branding purposes alone, he suggested “they could also be doing it to add a new platform from which to deliver academic-oriented applications and services that they’re not right now on their .edu space.”