How Top-Level Internet Domains Could Revitalize Cities, or Be Squandered

There is a little-known struggle going on right now over how a new series of “top level domains” on the Internet shall be used by cities of the world.  Top level domains, or TLDs, are the suffixes at the end of Web addresses, such as .com, .org and .net.  The international body that oversees TLDs is expected to announce a new series of TLDs in 2012 that would give cities their own TLDs.  So, for example, New York City would have a .nyc top level domain and Paris would have .paris.  The new TLDs could make it easier for people in the same metropolitan areas to find each other and interconnect on the Internet and in physical spaces.  

While the TLDs may be “just code” – a set of Internet protocols authorized by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for the Assigning of Names and Numbers – they will function much as parks, roadways and public squares in cities, that is, as spaces for getting around, meeting people, communicating things, and enjoying oneself.  The significant question is, Who shall have the authority to manage the city-based TLDs, and under what terms?  Very few people understand that the anticipated city-TLDs represent a world-changing urban infrastructure that could well be squandered through short-sighted privatization.

Photo of Queens street by Tony the Misfit, CC Attribution license, via Flickr.

At this point, we don’t know exactly when ICANN will authorize the use of city-TLDs.  But we do know that city governments are showing little inclination to treat the TLDs as a critical piece of common infrastructure that should be managed for the greatest public good.  It seems likely, at this point, that city governments will blindly delegate this authority to domain-registry companies, who will proceed to make a fortune selling prime domain names such as www.restaurants.nyc and www.queens.nyc.

This would be a colossal tragedy.  The ways that TLDs are structured and managed could profoundly shape the social, economic and civic life of cities around the world.  Amazingly, most city governments and architecture and urban design schools are oblivious to the potential opportunities and impact of a well-managed TLD system.  

I was alerted to these issues last weekend when I met Thomas Lowenhaupt, director of Connecting.NYC Inc. at a conference, Beyond Books, in Cambridge.  Connecting.NYC Inc. is a project dedicated to “Imagining New York’s Home on the Internet.”  Lowenhaupt and his band of partners are trying to persuade ICANN and New York City’s government to establish a commons-based governance regime for the .nyc TLD, and to treat its as an invaluable asset that should belong to the people, and not screwed up through government ignorance or privatization.  (A wiki for the project can be found here.)

Lowenhaupt gave a talk at the MIT PlanningTech Conference on April 8 at which he outlined why NYC planners should regard the TLDs as a critical tool for shaping the city in the future – equivalent in long-term significance to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that established the Manhattan street grid north of Houston Street.  The city-TLD essentially functions as the city’s cyber-grid, he said.  Why should that infrastructure be transferred or sold to private companies as if there were no structural, long-term public interests?

Lowenhaupt is urging that the city’s TLD be structured to enhance people’s ability to locate businesses and civic resources.  They should be managed by neighborhoods as stewards of an invaluable public resource – the ability to communicate, organize and govern ourselves at the local level. 

The Connecting.NYC website sketches its vision for the future:

Today, intuition enables one to enter a Fortune 500 corporate name - say IBM.com - into the address bar [of a Web browser] and expect a direct connection.  But beyond a few giants, 99% of the time people are better off doing a Google search.  But as residents become aware of .nyc’s intuitive design (and those of other city-TLDs), that will change. As .nyc permeates the city’s conscience, people will try entering the name of a local restaurant or clothing store with a .nyc suffix and hope, and later expect, a direct connection.

Eventually people will enter 75th-street.nyc to find very local news, or queensfoundations.nyc to locate a listing of foundations in Queens.  Today, you’ll receive 1,670,000 Google hits for Queens foundations and www.75thstreet.com will land you in a Kansas City brewery.

Lowenhaupt believes that New York City could do a better job of marketing itself as a tourist destination and business center if it managed its portal names like hotels.nyc and tours.nyc.  It could enhance the city’s “brand visibility” and establish the .nyc TLD as a trusted center for digital transactions.  Small businesses and organizations could be located more easily and could market themselves without having to buy expensive .com domain names.

It’s quite exciting to contemplate localities claiming their identities and governance on the Internet.  Imagine:  If Jackson Heights controlled its own domain name – as in jacksonheights.nyc -- it would not have to depend upon Facebook or other large, multinational platforms to communicate to people who live or visit there.  It could set up its own customized portals and “civic spaces” to meet its localized needs.  Indeed, with the proper commons-based governance system, a neighborhood could present itself to the world in an authoritative, trustworthy manner that suits its identity and resources. New types of local advertising could flourish through neighborhood-managed sites like Astoria.nyc and GreenwichVillage.nyc, and the revenues could stay within the communities rather than being siphoned away to distant dot-com companies.

There are an estimated 248 to 305 distinct neighborhoods in New York City.  Imagine if neighborhoods could form their own governance systems for acting as stewards of “harlem.nyc” or “westvillage.nyc.”  The city could stipulate that any neighborhood steward of a dotNeighborhood domain name would have to provide, at a minimum, a website with a neighborhood map, a listing of schools and government offices with links, a local business directory, a history of the neighborhood, hospitals, 24-hour pharmacies and other such information.  Connecting.NYC website believes that “the .nyc TLD brings the potential for a ‘civic media’ that will allow residents to identify problems and opportunities while providing the tools to create stronger neighborhoods and a more livable city.” 

There’s more:  A reliable, well-managed dotNeighborhood domain system would make it possible for cities to use intuitive tagging systems for physical objects, and so create a viable “Internet of things.”  Tags on clogged street grates or public restrooms could enable people to report problems, and city government could manage city resources more efficiently. 

The city could also establish standing domain names like “bikelanes.nyc” and “recycling.nyc” and “trees.nyc,” which would allow residents to access information about those resources, make suggestions, join discussion groups, etc.  Voters could have their own city-assigned domain name, such as john.doe.voter.nyc, which could be used to alert voters to upcoming elections and other civic issues.

As this brief imaginary suggests, the “architecture” of the city-TLDs opens up an enormous array of exciting possibilities that could improve cities in the coming decades.  But none of these will materialize without some visionary leadership for new kinds of “cyber-land use” and “zoning plans.” 

At the moment, things do not look good for this vision of cyber-zoning and neighborhood empowerment.  First, there is the glib presumption among politicians that the "free market" always does things better.  I won't bother to deconstruct the familiar fallacies there.  It's also dismaying to see that New York City’s Information Technology office is overseeing the potential management of the city-TLD.  This suggests that control over the city-TLD would simply be handed to private registry companies, as if no other public or long-term interests were at stake than allocating the domain names.  Under the standard system for assigning domain names that now exists, a registry company simply sells URLs on a first come, first serve basis.  It makes a lot of money for performing a modest administrative chore.  Period.

Needless to say, such companies do not have the expertise, interest or vision to treat the city TLDs as precious infrastructure worthy of the most careful, diligent planning.  Connecting.NYC is advocating that responsibility for the .nyc TLD be handed over to the City Planning Department, which has a far better sense of how infrastructure can improve city life. 

Connecting.NYC has impressively pulled together a detailed vision for a “governance ecology” for the city TLDs, drawing upon the insights of Professor Elinor Ostrom in managing common pool resources.  Specifically, the organization is advocating “a local oversight structure that engages residents and organizations in the .nyc TLD's governance; an operating entity to oversee the TLD's daily operation; and a series of relationships with the Internet's global technical and governance communities.”

The fate of the city-TLDs, in New York and elsewhere, is still unfolding, so the vision set forth by Connecting.NYC could still materialize.  But it will take some concerted advocacy, organizing and public agitation.  We need to keep in mind that opportunities of this magnitude to re-imagine the future of a city, build an empowering civic infrastructure (the TLDs) and establish new modes of commons governance do not happen every day.  We need to make the most of this historic moment.  Sign the Connecting.NYC petition today!