The state of Vermont says it has no plans to shell out tens of thousands in cash to own the Vermont name — or, more accurately, the .vermont or .vt names — at least for now. That's the word from Secretary Lawrence Miller at the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, about plans by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), to start issuing new top-level domains (TLDs), including .vermont and .vt later this year.
ICANN, which acts as the internet’s global traffic cop, is the entity that issues the dot suffixes — .com, .org, .net, .biz, etc.— we all use to access websites. Because of the internet's exponential growth, ICANN recognized several years ago that it was only a matter of time before it effectively ran out of usable addresses in the Domain Name System (DNS).
Hence ICANN’s decision last year to offer new, generic TLDs in 2012 in order to "foster diversity, encourage competition and enhance the utility of the DNS." Starting on January 12, ICANN began accepting applications from businesses, organizations, governments and other entities to buy their own unique plots of virtual real estate on the worldwide web, such as .coke, .exxonmobil, and .microsoft. ICANN's application process closes on April 12, after which, presumably, anyone with $185,000 in spare change can step up and apply for their own .whatever domain.
Glenn Ravdin, a marketing and branding expert with the consulting firm 2NS of South Hero, was the first to raise concerns about this issue in the Green Mountain State. Back in the 1990s, Ravdin worked for an ad agency that did a lot of work with state government. He says he was involved in early efforts to market the Vermont brand, including the state's wood-products industry. As far back as 1998, Ravdin says, he wrote to the attorney general about protecting the "made in Vermont" label of origin.
Just weeks ago, in an open letter to members of the Vermont Legislature, which he also published on the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility’s LinkedIn discussion board, Ravdin asked lawmakers to protect the dot-vermont brand and warned what might happen if some unscrupulous party scooped up the .vt or .vermont suffixes.
As he wrote:
"Someone with just $9.3 million could buy the domains for every state in the union, domains that potentially could be worth billions. Who will end up owning .vermont? This is one piece of real estate over which we must stake our claim. While the cost seems steep — $185,000 — it’s a fraction of what we might have to pay later to get it. And the risks of misuse are very real. Syrup with no maple content at all can have a maple.vermont web address. Cheese from anywhere can carry a .vermont URL. The same could be said about furniture from China, energy from coal plants in the Midwest, and farm products from the most polluted areas of the world."
Richard Boes is Vermont’s chief information officer with the Vermont Department of Information and Innovation. According to Boes, the state has opted not to file an application to purchase the .vermont name.
One reason, he explains, is purely economic. The cost, he notes, is "fairly significant," not just to buy the domain from ICANN, but also to maintain it for web users. Another reason is technological: Vermont state government already has more than enough space on its .gov domain to meet all its web needs for the foreseeable future. Moreover, according to ICANN rules, the .vermont TLD couldn't be used simply as a placeholder to drive traffic to Vermont's .gov addresses.
"What is the purpose we would have for a root-level domain name that could serve out hundreds of thousands of web pages?" Boes asks. "The state just doesn’t have that need."
Boes, who is also a member of the National Association of Chief Information Officers (NACIO), says this question went out on the NACIO bulletin board to all 50 states. About 50 percent of the states responded. All but one — Texas — said they're not planning to apply for their own states' domains.
Secretary Miller also doesn't think the price is worth it. As he puts it, “I have a hard time imagining a strong business case where running a domain registry in a market as small as Vermont is going to throw off the type of money that would support operating the business.”
But Ravdin isn’t so sure. He suggests that if Vermont were to own and operate the registry as a nonprofit, "We would find no shortage of Vermont entities lining up to avail themselves of the incredible opportunity, eventually offsetting the cost. The domain would be an excellent business development tool, affording all Vermont companies with a way to combine their efforts and market themselves to wider markets. And, we could charge Vermont Technical College with the administration of the domain, keeping our costs down and providing students with an excellent learning experience."
John Canning, president of the Vermont Software Developers' Alliance, makes a similar argument. As long ago as 2008, Canning says, his members began discussing this issue, too.
"We still think that the .vt and .vermont TLDs would be a good investment for the state of Vermont," Canning writes in an email. "We would be willing to work with the state to find a way to make this happen. We have not broached this subject with the new administration. Instead, when we meet with them, our entire discussion centers around creating jobs in the tech sector."
The first step in registering .vermont or .vt, Canning says, would be to get the legislature to approve or create an entity to serve as the registrar for the TLD. In creating this registrar, the legislature could also spell out the rules for which entities would be allowed to register under the .vt or .vermont TLDs. For example, he writes, "You would not want Aunt Jemima using the .vermont TLD to promote imitation maple syrup."
After the TLD has been secured, the registrar could then open its digital doors and allow people and companies to sign up to use the .vt and .vermont TLDs.
While Miller acknowledges the marketing potential of the .vermont domain, he argues that the $185,000 could better be used in other areas to promote job growth and economic development. And, as he points out, ICANN rules dictate that if someone else tries to purchase a geographic place name, he or she would first need to have the support of the government of that place in order to secure it.
"We’ll be monitoring," he adds, "and if someone applies for it without our participation, we’ll definitely lodge our objection."
Incidentally, when Ravdin was asked last week if any Vermont lawmakers had responded to his query, the answer was no. "Not even my own," he lamented.
So, any other takers?