New TLDs: Time For a Do-Over on Plural Similarity

Mandarin is a tricky language, but ICANN may want to learn the expression chóngfù before leaving the Beijing meeting. Chóngfù means “do-over” and that’s what ICANN needs to forestall an entirely preventable disaster in the delegation of new top-level domains (TLDs).

The issue of “string similarity” seems straightforward. Nobody inside ICANN or out there in the real world wants Internet users to be confused by new TLDs that are confusingly similar. Imagine hearing an ad offering low rates at car.loans but you encounter something completely different at car.loan instead? And what would stop somebody from launching a new TLD by just tacking an “s” onto popular domains like .com or .org?

The Government Advisory Committee (GAC) is catching a lot of flack for it’s Beijing Communiqué, but one thing the GAC got right was its advice that singular/plural strings are confusingly similar.

So how did we get to a point where ICANN inexplicably failed to find confusing similarity for 24 pairs of singular and plural forms of the same words, including .web /.webs, .game/.games, and .hotel/.hotels? More important, how do we fix this?

Chóngfù is hard for westerners to say and will be even harder for ICANN to do.

For starters, a little transparency is probably in order. The string-similarity review process was opaque by design. But many in the community want to know how ICANN’s experts either failed to recognize the plurality issue — which would be troubling — or decided that single and plural gTLD strings can successfully coexist — which would be ludicrous.

Thankfully, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has basic guidance on similarity: “words used in the singular include the plural and vice versa, as the context may require.” That’s the kind of common sense ICANN could use to correct the Guidebook and do a quick do-over on those 24 pairs of singular/plural TLDs.

ICANN may get a convenient backdoor out of this dilemma from the International Centre for Dispute Resolution, which is reviewing string confusion objections on seven of the single/plural pairs. If ICDR makes the right ruling, ICANN should apply that rule to all 24 single/plural pairs.

And if all else fails, there’s always ICANN’s “reconsideration” process for a formal chóngfù.

ICANN’s critics at the United Nations and within many governments are waiting for a highly visible misstep in the ambitious expansion of top-level domains. That could be used to justify having governments displace the private sector in its leadership role on growing and governing the Internet.

Better that ICANN find a way to do-over on singular/plurals, than to risk having governments impose a bigger do-over on ICANN itself.

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