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Impact of "Adult" and Generic Top-Level Internet Domains on Colleges and Universities

Internet domains in the new "adult" .xxx domain recently became available. So did arbitrary generic top-level domains (gTLDs) beyond the existing .com, .net, .org, .edu, .gov, and so forth. Both initiatives affect higher education. The effects of these initiatives thus far have been modest, but they have been entirely negative. So far as we know, no college or university has benefited from either initiative. Rather, institutions have been exposed to risk and incurred costs without receiving any value in return. On behalf of its members, EDUCAUSE proposes that procedures for issuing and managing generic top-level domains be tightened to reduce their unintended negative effects on colleges and universities.

 I discussed the initiatives themselves more fully in an August 2011 post. Now that the initiatives are fully launched, this post provides some additional information and recommendations. I comment first on the risks arising from the .xxx domain, then on the costs institutions have incurred to mitigate those risks, and finally on some issues arising around generic top-level domains. I conclude with a few recommendations for ICANN and gTLD registrars, and one for colleges and universities.

Risks from the .xxx domain

Colleges and universities typically have .edu domains, and use these for their official business. In addition, many institutions have claimed relevant .com, .org, .biz, .info, or .net domains. Stanford University, for example, uses "stanford.edu" for its Web presence, but it also has licensed "stanford.com" and "stanford.org". Similarly, many institutions have claimed relevant domains in selected country top-level domains (cTLDs) such as .us, .mx, .uk, or .cn, typically those where the institution has branch campuses. The goals in these cases typically  have been simply to avoid confusion.

The .xxx domain does more than simply increase the number of top-level domains that might lead to confusion. Institutions worry that purveyors of adult material might explicitly seek to market their wares by associating those wares with college or university names, much as Playboy magazine once did with its "Women of the Ivy League" and similar features, and that this might reflect negatively on a college or university's reputation. That is, the risks introduced by the .xxx domain go well beyond those already arising from other top-level domains.

The risk is not hypothetical. As Hawaii News Now reported in early February,

The University of Hawaii is demanding the operator of a pornographic web site stop using the school's name or face legal action. The web site, called universityofhawaii.xxx, claims to feature what it describes as "hot nude Hawaiian college girls."  It is full of graphic pictures of men and women having sex on beaches and at other tropical locations.

This is precisely the kind of embarrassment many institutions worried about.

Before the new domain .xxx went live, institutions had the opportunity to block use of their identity in .xxx domains through a so-called "Sunrise B" registration -- but only if the institution's identity (name, team name, nickname, etc.) had been trademarked, and the identity to be blocked precisely matched the trademark. Once the new domain went live, Sunrise B registrations were no longer available, and the only recourse for an institution was to register the potentially offending domain itself once the "Landrush" and "General Availability" periods began-- or, if the domain had already been registered, to persuade the registrant to reassign or relinquish it.

Sunrise B, regular registration, and persuasion all entail costs, which brings me to the next section.

Costs to Mitigate .xxx Risks

As I wrote above, institutions could have filed Sunrise B registrations for .xxx domains, and a few institutions did so successfully. Typically a successful Sunrise B registration cost $199 for ten years -- but the fee was the same even if the registration was unsuccessful. Some institutions tried to obtain Sunrise B registrations for non-trademarked names, but this did not succeed. One college I'll call "Alpha" paid $1,000 in an attempt to register five names, only three of which corresponded to registered trademarks. The registrar approved only the trademarked three, but did not refund the $400 Alpha had paid for the other two. Another college, "Beta", paid $199 for one successful Sunrise B registration, and then obtained General Availability registrations for four others at $99/year per domain.

It's interesting to note that the cost of a .xxx registration varies from registrar to registrar, from a reported low of $79/year to a reported high of $103; also, some registrars offered only 10-year Sunrise B registrations, while others offered a perpetual option.

An informal survey of EDUCAUSE members found that successful Sunrise B (trademark blocking) registrations varied from none to a high of 22, whereas Landrush and General Availability registrations varied from none to 11. The typical response was 1-3 Sunrise B registrations and about 4 regular registrations. A quick Web search finds myriad other instances of colleges and universities registering .xxx domains.

The names being registered or blocked typically are variations on the institution's name plus variations on team names. Most institutions report that the process for registering .xxx domains is straightforward and efficient. Although most institutions complained that they should not have to pay to defend their names, few complained about the actual amount of the fees.

Domain squatters -- individuals or entities who register domains with the intention of  reselling rather than using them -- have been a long-time problem. In the Hawaii case, it's reported that the entity that registered uhawaii.xxx demanded $100,000 to relinquish it. We have reports of at other institutions being approached by .xxx squatters, but in each case the institution simply refused to deal with the squatter.

Generic Top-Level Domains

Although the idea of a generic top-level domain in a college's or university's name is appealing, the logistics of applying for and managing one have kept most institutions from pursuing this option. As one colleague put it,

There are two problems.  First, I have been unable to find a third party to do the registrar function for us (and we are unable to do it ourselves). It seems no one has yet figured out that there is a business opportunity in doing this. Also, the application itself needs to be a multi-hundred page submission to meet the requirements of the guidebook.  I'm actually hoping that will change over time for trademark holders.  If I hold the trademark for [institution name], I don't see why I need to answer most of the questions in the guidebook.

Unless these two issues are addressed, it is unlikely most colleges or universities will pursue their own gTLD.

Recommendations

Other than the Hawaii case, the new .xxx and gTLD initiatives have mostly caused colleges and universities to divert administrative effort and funds to blocking or registering domains. Even so, we believe that ICANN could impose some simple requirements on new domains such as .xxx that would greatly reduce problems for higher education without materially complicating matters for registrars in those gTLDs.

  1. Automatically impose a Sunrise B block on any domain within a gTLD that corresponds to a registered trademark. That is, if "alphagroup" is a registered trademark, then, for example, the registrar for the .xxx domain should automatically refuse to issue alphagroup.xxx to any entity other than the trademark holder. The simplest way to achieve this would be to require that applicants for a domain affirm, under penalty of perjury, that they have searched the relevant trademark databases and that the domain name they seek does not conflict with any registered trademark. The registrar should then be required to randomly spot-audit some fraction of applications to ensure that affirmations are valid.
     
  2. Automatically impose a Sunrise B block on any domain name within a gTLD that corresponds to an domain within the .edu, .gov, .mil, or any other similarly regulated gTLDs. That is, if there is already a domain bigstate.edu, then the registrar for the .xxx domain, for example, should reject an application for bigstate.xxx, and similarly for other gTLDs.
     
  3. For gTLDs designated for potentially offensive material, such as .xxx, impose a waiting period between application and registration during which the application is public and other entities may object to the registration of a particular domain. If someone objects formally to the registration, invoke an arbitration or mediation process to resolve the dispute in a timely way.
     
  4. For gTLD applications, reject any gTLD suffix that conflicts with a registered trademark unless it is being sought by the trademark holder.

If these requirements had been imposed on the .xxx domain, most of its negative effects on colleges and universities would have been mitigated. Some institutions would still have wanted to claim some .xxx domains as a defensive strategy, but at least they would not have been required to devote extra effort and money to defending names already trademarked.

This leads to one important recommendation for colleges and universities:

  1. Colleges and universities should wherever possible trademark the official name of their institution, the variations on that name and nicknames in common use, and do the same for team names, named schools, departments, institutes, and so forth, and distinctive mottos or slogans.

EDUCAUSE will be continuing to monitor this situation, and to file comments and make recommendations that might produce progress.

 
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