A domain by any other name....

The rules have changed in the internet domain name game.
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The rules have changed in the internet domain name game.

Opinion: If you thought you had obtained the best possible New Zealand domain name for your business, stand by to be screwed.

If that was some time ago, then stand by to be really shafted by a greedy inept authority you have had no control over.

As a registrant of a .co.nz domain name, have you even heard from the people who insist on having your domain's contact details yet haven't told you a thing about how your address on the web could now be severely devalued? That you could be put to a lot of trouble and pay out for nothing in particular other than to protect what you already have. And that's if you are lucky.

In a media release 21 July 2014 the Domain Name Commission announced that from 1pm, 30 September 2014, domains could be registered at the second level. That is, rather than yourbusiness.co.nz you could register the shorter yourbusiness.nz.

According to them this is to "usher in a new era of choice". In truth it's only a choice because the wrong choice was made initially by the very people who now want you to pay out again for something you should have had from the start. Germany always had just .de, France .fr and many other countries from the beginning had the shorter version.

The chickens have come home to roost. Hundreds of new domain extensions are now flooding the world market, threatening the ungainly ".co.nz". You are about to have to pay for a shocking blunder made by those running the New Zealand Domain Registry.

You have been paying for what you thought was the best possible domain name you could get, now you are going to have to pay again for a better one.

And, unless you want to commit brand and visitor traffic suicide on the web, you had better pay for them both. It's a regulatory authority with a gun to your head and a licence to print money. You are the one paying.

But it gets worse. You may not even get the .nz equivalent of the .co.nz name your business relies on.

That's right. If your .nz business domain name is "conflicted" (that is, it's been registered at least twice at the third level – eg. say you hold anyname.co.nz and someone else holds anyname.net.nz, you are "conflicted"), you could totally miss out.

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And here's the real kicker. The better your .co.nz name is, the more likely you are to be "conflicted". If it's a good name, it's descriptive or has some other attractive quality, it's more  likely others will have registered the .org.nz, the .geek.nz, the .gen.nz, or the .kiwi.nz. And if your business is based on a geographic name, then you will have to toss into the whole conflicted mess names that end in .school.nz, and .govt.nz.

So who will end up with the more desirable .nz? Maybe not you.

On its site the Domain Name Commission had this to say: "you can find out who else you're conflicted with. This is helpful because you can get in touch with them, find out what they might want to do". Isn't that sweet!

Forgetting the practicalities of finding the person in charge of a .govt domain, doesn't it sound like a set-up for a darn good shakedown that the Godfather himself would be proud of?

On their site the Domain Commission goes on in an odd, difficult-to-follow concertina format, to describe a complex conflict industry that they are implementing and will ultimately control. The effort, time, and money you may have to expend to get what you should have had all along, the uncertainty of it all! It will be a real pain for New Zealand businesses and it is likely to damage the New Zealand Registry.

And it is all totally unnecessary because what they don't want you to know is that there is a much better way. Across the other side of the world at the .uk registry they just changed to the shorter version and no one was conflicted. Also the process was not the full-speed greedy money grab it is with the .nz registry.

This is from the Nominet Site, administrators of the .uk registry: "As an existing .co.uk customer you will be eligible to register the equivalent .uk domain first. So if you own 'www.example.co.uk', the shorter and sharper 'www.example.uk' has been reserved especially for you for free until  07:59 on 10 June 2019."

Did you get that? The .co.uk owner gets the right to the new name and it doesn't have to register and pay for it for up to five years. End of story, everyone knows where they stand and life on the web is onwards and upwards; the UK web that is.

Nominet said it gave the right to .co.uk because: "We agree that this is the best option as it is fair to as many people as possible, will minimise consumer confusion, and best reflects the

perceptions and expectations within the domain name market.

"The vast majority of registrations in the .uk namespace are .co.uk – 93 per cent compared to 7 per cent for all others (.org.uk, .me.uk, etc) combined. This suggests .co.uk has come to be seen as the 'default' suffix for many UK businesses and consumers." (Note: The New Zealand number is 85 per cent for .co.nz )

On the time given to register Nominet said: "For businesses choosing to move to .uk, we want to minimise additional costs as much as possible. We believe that a five-year period will mitigate the marketing/rebranding costs associated with moving to a new web address, as the changes could form part of a natural cycle of refreshing a brand and/or updating marketing material."

So how come we in New Zealand ended up having to deal with a conflicted system and with a miserable two years to decide and pay up? Were we registrants ever asked what we wanted? From January, the New Zealand Domain Commission would have been fully aware of the .uk experience and had the contacts to get a full briefing and background.

So did they keep us in the loop? Consult widely and directly with us the people who pay the bills? Did they base any decision on our considered input?

In their newsletter of February 2014 that goes out to tech and domain registry insiders the Domain Commission asked for submissions closing Tuesday 11 March 2014. Although nothing would have been more relevant, no mention was made of the .uk experience.

As it happened one submission did draw it to their attention. It wasn't a vote, of course, but a majority of four said that the first to register the name originally should have the right to the .nz. There were no submissions that matched the decision that appeared four months later in the Domain Commission's 21 July 2014 media release, the fait accompli website, or in the setting of the go date for just over two months later. There were no further consultations over that four-month period.

So what is fair? Here is what appeared on the Domain Commission's website:

"For reasons of fairness, where there is more than one Registrant competing for a .nz domain name to be registered directly at the second level the Domain Name Commission does not believe preference could be given to the oldest registration.

"Similarly, the Domain Name Commission does not believe one second level should have preference over any other. For example, the registrant of anyname.co.nz should not be treated differently to the Registrant of anyname.school.nz."

So there you go, the two most logical tests of fairness for the right to the .nz dismissed as unfair by the Domain Commission: the age, who was first to register, which is the universally accepted fairness test in trademark law, or the fairness for the greatest number as in the .uk example. Remember that with co.nz it is quite probably one and the same.

What the commission did was effectively not make a decision, throwing it all into being conflicted and contestable. We are now the ones who will have to spend our time and money dealing with the consequences and trying to sort it out.

If there's a problem in the sign-up period, if the extortion time window hasn't gone well for you, say the registrant of .gen.nz version of your name is demanding more cash and won't agree, then you will have to submit to the commission's own in-house judicial system.

It will be like a baby contest, totally subjective, with them knowing best. And look: "After that, if there's still no agreement on who'll get the name, it will be unavailable for registration." Heck "unavailable for registration".

There will be 'holes' (non resolving names) all over the .nz space and these should've represented some of the best and longest established domain names and businesses on the web. Customers writing in the address they suppose should be you and getting nothing will think you're out of business.

And if you're not happy with the outcomes, then you may have to pay more because you have no option but to go through levels of appeals costing up to $7000. And of course it's all under their control.

So why would an organisation charged with the care of our bit of the internet act in such a secretive, unreasonable, and destructive manner?

The New Zealand internet space is comparatively little - tiny in fact. Most businesses operating in it serve only our population of a mere 4.8 million.

With such a small market, to survive and thrive on the web businesses need everything going for them. Their web address is a critical part of their trading identity. After September 30 that identity will be progressively corroded by confusion and dilution. If businesses are lucky, it will just cost them money. For others their viability could be at stake.

And the people who were given regulatory privilege to run things and should be carefully managing the transition are too busy talking up 'choice' and grabbing the money. They have no respect for the livelihoods that domains represent or for the fact the registrants pay their salaries.

It is shocking that those who have backed the New Zealand internet from the start now have the most to lose.

There will be thousands and thousands of New Zealand businesses conflicted, all wondering how best to protect what they thought they already had.

The Domain Commission and Internet NZ have not been acting in our best interests.

Ross Johnstone is an internet entrepreneur living in Plimmerton who owns 35 domain names and who has on occasion registered them for the purpose of resale.

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