Who Gets to Be a .Doctor?

Customized domain names mean institutions are registering web addresses they will likely never use. Meanwhile, Ph.D. holders may not be allowed to use the domain that best suits them.

March 26, 2015

Should a doctor of philosophy be considered a .doctor?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, has yet to make web addresses ending in .doctor available, but the debate about who should be able to register for them has already begun. ICANN recently decided that .doctor should only be available to licensed medical practitioners, meaning the millions of Ph.D. holders in the U.S. whose degrees are not in medicine won’t be eligible.

Donuts Inc., a company specifically founded to be a provider for the new domains, is challenging ICANN’s decision. The company applied for 307 domains, easily surpassing Google, which was second on the list with 101.

“It’s a freedom of expression issue,” Donuts cofounder Jonathon Nevett said in an interview. “This is a regulatory body saying that one type of speech is acceptable and another type isn’t. We don’t want content restrictions. We don’t want censorship on the Internet when there’s no good reason for that.”

Other occupation-related domains, such as .attorney, .dentist and .lawyer, are not as strictly regulated, Nevett pointed out. In cases where someone were to impersonate a lawyer or dentist online, ICANN has protections in place to suspend or delete the offending website, he said, adding that .doctor should not be treated differently.

“'Doctor' itself is a generic term and has a wide variety of uses,” Nevett said, using a “lawn doctor” as an example. “If we limited this top-level domain to just licensed medical practitioners, we would have a quirky situation where a Ph.D. in mathematics would not be permitted to get ‘mathematics.doctor,’ but your local pediatrician would.”

Ph.D. holders will at least have backup options if ICANN doesn’t reverse its decision. Google has been delegated .prof (meant for professionals), and a decision on who gets the rights to .phd is still pending.

The dispute over .doctor is one of many inevitable conflicts that have arisen as ICANN works to give people and organizations more options to personalize their web addresses. Since the creation of the Internet, most web addresses have ended in generic top-level domains, including .com, .org and .edu, among others, or two-letter country codes -- .us, .uk and .no,  for example. In 2011, ICANN relaxed those rules, allowing trademark holders to apply for customized generic top-level domains, or gTLDs.

The announcement didn’t draw much interest from academe -- especially not in the U.S. For more than a decade, .edu has been restricted to accredited postsecondary institutions in the U.S., giving colleges and universities a go-to domain. But as ICANN continues to delegate new domains, some colleges and universities are once again registering domains they will likely never use to prevent others from misusing their trademarks.

The process is similar to when, in 2011, some universities registered domains ending in .xxx for the same purpose -- except now the options are more plentiful than ever before and growing each week. ICANN only approved .xxx after years of controversy and debate. In comparison, the organization has delegated 36 new domains this month alone, from .ads and .film to .nissan and .oracle.

In cases where one person or organization owns a trademark, the customized domain is delegated without a dispute. But for the most generic of the generic top-level domains -- such as .flower, a common noun -- the right to sell web addresses may be awarded to a registry. For example, .college is owned by the domain registry XYZ. Anyone interested in registering a .college web address can search for available addresses through the company.

When new domains such as .college become available, registries follow a gradual rollout. During the first several weeks and months, known as the sunrise period, registration is available only to trademark holders. Since the .college sunrise period began last week, a handful of colleges and universities have taken advantage of that opportunity, among them Boston College and Marist College.

While Marist may find marist.college useful, Boston College registered the redundant bostoncollege.college and boston-college.college. Even some universities -- Louisiana State, North Carolina State and Harvard, among others -- have registered web addresses that end in .college.

The steady expansion of domain names, in other words, leaves colleges and universities interested in protecting their trademark with a bundle of unused web addresses -- and they are paying for it. The domain .sucks, which becomes available March 30, can be registered during the sunrise period for $2,499.

However, many of the domain registries also offer less expensive blocking options for trademark holders not interested in using the new addresses. Blocking a .sucks domain from being registered will cost slightly less than $200 a year. Those who are delegating the new domains are also required to have easily accessible takedown services so trademark holders who neither registered nor blocked websites can quickly request that infringing sites be closed.

Harvard University has perhaps been the most protective of its trademark. In addition to being an early registrant for .college, Harvard also owns harvard.porn and harvard.adult.

“Like many other trademark owners, Harvard has chosen to register some of the newly available domain names so they cannot be misused,” a spokeswoman for the university said in an email.


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