In the dot-nyc land rush, unanswered questions about who will benefit as the city signs a $3.6 M contract

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Nancy Scola

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There's a land-rush happening on the worldwide web this month, and New York City is rushing to stake its claim.

It was in January that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (or ICANN), the nonprofit that helps to govern the Internet, opened the door wide to registering what's known as "generic top-level domains," including ones that would be accessible to cities.

A top-level domain is what appears at the end of a URL—by tradition in the United States, .com; for other countries, .co.uk, for instance, for the United Kingdom, or .ca, for Canada; .org for nonprofits and like-minded organizations; .edu for educational institutions.

In this latest round of top-level-domain registration applications to ICANN, cities are contemplated as entities, with the rumor mill having it that .berlin, .moscow, and .mumbai are all being applied for by their respective cities.

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Last Tuesday came word that New York City had signed a contract with Neustar, a Virginia-based domain registrar that operates the .biz and .us top-level domains, among others, to administer the vast field of internet real estate that will open up with the approval by ICANN of a .nyc top-level domain.

New York City chief technology officer Carole Post said in a statement, "We view the .nyc TLD as a unique opportunity, at a unique time, to ride the digital wave and keep New York City at the leading edge of innovation.”

But for advocates and elected officials who have been urging the city to fight for the .nyc top-level domain, questions are popping up about how the tremendous potential benefits to city organizations and businesses will be managed fairly. And the brief appearance of a copy of the contract with Neustar that was available for public review at the offices of the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, raised significant questions, too.

Tom Lowenhaupt is widely credited as the first and foremost advocate for the .nyc domain, under the banner of his organization, Connecting.nyc. At a lightly publicized and sparsely attended public hearing on Friday at Brooklyn's MetroTech Center about the city's efforts to win the .nyc top-level domain, Lowenhaupt brought up Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, focusing on "sharing, loving, caring, sympathy, all those important human traits."

"It's possible that the .nyc TLD is the organizing force for those most important human traits," testified Lowenhaupt. "This might seem like crazy talk. But look at developments like Wikipedia and the open source [software] movement. It's people sharing, helping others."

"Imagine our city with a thousand Wikipedia-scale projects emerging as resources, like JacksonHeights.nyc, GreenwichVillage.nyc, Harlem.nyc, elections.nyc. These are resources that need to be set aside."

Lowenhaupt raised the clearing of the land needed for Central Park in the mid-1800s. "They didn't plan properly."

"This should have been lead by the City Planning Commission," argued Lowenhaupt, rather than the city's Department of Information Technology. "This is a failure at the highest levels of City Hall."

Robert Pollard, operator of a group called Information Habitat: Where Information Lives, has also long been a believer in the possibilities of the .nyc top-level domain.

"This is far too important an issue to be addressed at this level with so little publicity and so little attention. The value of these names is something that has been built in by the history of a community. Can someone just come in and buy that and claim ownership to it?"

"I'm glad that it's moving forward," council member Gale Brewer said in her testimony; she was an early advocate for the acquisition of the .nyc top-level domain. "However, I have to tell you, I'm a little disappointed in the lack of notice to the public about this hearing and the selection of a vendor in general."

Brewer praised the terms of the contract as "promising" from a financial perspective, but added, "increased revenue for the city is certainly important, given our fiscal situation. But the first priority of .nyc needs to be to promote the interests of our city, to improve the lives of our residents, our businesses—particularly our small businesses—and our visitors."

At issue: how the new .nyc resource will be put to use. Will it be an "open TLD," in Internet parlance, available to anyone willing to pay to register a site on it, like Libya's .ly top-level domain? (Popular sites like bit.ly use it, though they have no connection to Libya.)

Or will .nyc it be available only to locals? That's the route Canada takes, limiting .ca only to those with a Canadian connection.

Will some domains be reserved for 'public' use, not available for purchase by private companies? Brewer pointed to the possibility of a restaurants.nyc, creating a natural gathering place for city eateries.

What about Soho.nyc, Astoria.nyc, Bushwick.nyc? One advocate likens such domains to the equivalent of New York City's street grid under the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, providing a framework for both organization and innovation. Would they be open to anyone? If not, who decides how they are used?

In New York City, those questions take on added meaning for two reasons. One, the expected cachet, and thus desirability, of a .nyc-based domain. And two, the fact that the earliest calls for the creation of .nyc were rooted in the notion that, as a shared commons, it could be a community-building resource of historic proportions.

Under the contract with Neustar, the city is guaranteed at least $3.6 million over an initial five year period, with the agreement eligible for two five-year extensions. The city would receive a minimum of $300,000 in the first year of the deal, sliding upwards to $1.05 million by year five. Should .nyc prove particularly profitable, the city would receive 40 percent of Neustar's related gross revenue each year, from not only domain registrations but advertisements and other associated commerce.

Nuestar also agrees to pay the city's $185,000 application fee to ICANN and subsequent approval costs.

On how open .nyc will be, the contract calls for a TLD that requires registrants have a "nexus" with the New York City, such as being a resident or operating a business within its boundaries. Under the contact, weekly spot-checks of 50 registered domains will be conducted to determine whether registrants were indeed maintaining the required connection to the city.

But other questions remain unanswered. When it comes to the domains that would be reserved for common use—restaurants.nyc, for example, or neighborhood-associated ones—the contract leaves the question open, which theoretically means that Neustar could sell those domains to private companies.

The document refers to domains held back from the general pool for the use of New York City government or related entities, or for "marketing" purposes, but indicates the appendices that will detail just what those domains are will be attached at a later date.

Some advocates are calling for the city to slow down and hammer out these details before moving ahead. "There's no need to pursue this application now," said Pollard at the hearing. "No one else is going to be able to get that domain."

But city officials have been eager to finally make .nyc official.

City council Speaker Christine Quinn highlighted it in her 2009 State of the City address, citing the benefits of saving Tony's Pizza from competing from a like-named business in Kansas City.

"Mark Twain famously advised 'Buy land, they're not making it anymore,'" said Quinn at the time. "Well now we can make more New York addresses—just on the internet!"

Then, last May, the city's "Roadmap for the Digital City," released under the direction of then-new Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne, detailed the city's intention to pursue .nyc, calling it "a global milestone that will enable innovation and digital services for residents, and economic advantages for businesses."

City officials say they are constrained by the timetable set up by ICANN. This round of registration was a long and hard-fought process, opening finally in January of this year; though it is indeed unlikely that any other city or entity will be able to get the .nyc top-level domain except for New York City, it's not clear when the next registration opportunity will arise.

So, the city argues that nailing down .nyc is just the latest round in building the digital city; there will be time for debate after the paperwork for the top-level domain is in to ICANN.

"The public hearing and forthcoming application mark the latest steps in an ongoing process," said DoITT spokesperson Nicholas Sbordone, "that should ultimately benefit any interested New York City resident, business, or entity—at no taxpayer cost."

"If awarded the TLD," said Sbordone, "we'll continue working to build the value and prominence of the '.nyc' brand with input from stakeholders citywide."