Introducing .za Second Level Registrations (SLRs)
The .za Domain Name Authority (zaDNA) has recently issued a public discussion document and a request for submissions on direct second level registrations (SLRs) in the .za ccTLD. What this effectively means is that, at some stage in the future, you could be able to register “yourname.za” in addition (or alternatively) to “yourname.co.za”.
According to zaDNA, “… SLRs will help improve registration options in .ZA and are likely to be more attractive than the current third level registrations as SLRs will allow for shorter domain names and URLs. At the least, SLRs are likely to offer sustainable alternatives to the current third level registration model.“
I am not completely convinced by the argument that the public needs, or even wants, further registration options or that “shorter is always better” when it comes to domain names. The “co.za” second level domain (SLD) has already established itself as the de facto standard for local domain names, with over 1,1 million domain registrations. One simply has to look around you to appreciate how popular and widely adopted “co.za” domain names have become over the past 20+ years.
That said, I have little doubt that “.za” will eventually follow the international trend and make SLRs available to the public. There is just too much international momentum on SLRs for zaDNA to ignore. This brings me to my main point… introducing SLRs into .za is invariably going to introduce complexity and risk. Some of the more significant challenges we will face relates to how we will deal with conflicting or confusingly similar domain name registrations.
What follows is a high-level overview of some of the complexities and challenges we will likely face with the release of SLRs in the “.za” namespace:
3LR (Third Level Registration) refers to the 3rd level domains registered in the current SLDs, example: “yourname.co.za“, “yournames.org.za“, “yourname.gov.za” etc.
SLD (Second Level Domain), refers to the legacy 2nd level domains, which currently offer registrations to the public or qualifying entities, example: “co.za“, “org.za“, net.za”, “gov.za” “ac.za” etc.
SLR (Second Level Registration), refers to the proposed new registration of domain names at the second level of .za, example: “yourname.za“
Conflicts between SLRs and SLDs
We should take care to avoid instances where the public is able to obtain SLRs that could be confused with existing SLDs. Someone may want to obtain an SLR that ‘mimics’ an existing SLD with the view of creating a series of conflicting or abusive (misleading) 3rd level domain registrations.
#1 SLRs like “guv.za” “g0v.za”, “gav.za” and “govt.za” could, intentionally or inadvertently, result in confusion with the official “gov.za” SLD. Although not exactly the same, a similar issue was recently highlighted in the Carte Blanche expose on domain name abuses where 3LRs were made to mimic gov.za domain names. The end result was tender fraud and phishing. Examples include:
- “sars.g0v.za” (SLR) vs. “sars.gov.za” (SLD)
- “limpopogov.za” (SLR) vs. “limpopo.gov.za” (SLD)
#2 Similar to the above, SLRs like “c0.za”, “com.za”, “biz.za” and “corp.za” could cause potential conflicts and/or confusion with the popular “co.za” SLD. This could create opportunities for various forms of domain abuse, including cybersquatting and typosquatting, which may in turn lead to unlawful acts like phishing, fraud or trade mark infringement. Examples include:
- “fnb.com.za” (SLR) vs “fnb.co.za” (SLD)
- “absaco.za” (SLR) vs “absa.co.za” (SLD)
As you may have picked up from the above, it is also possible that the SLR itself may not resemble an SLD at first glance, but may contain a misleading suffix that presents a possible conflict. The misleading element could be hidden within the larger SLR name and be more difficult to identify and regulate. The following examples, even though they may look the same, are completely separate and technically unique domain names. The only difference being the absence or presence of a single dot “.”
Conflicts between SLRs and 3LRs
The public has already made a considerable investment in existing 3LRs… especially those registered in the “co.za” SLD. Each one of the more than 1,1 million unique “co.za” domain registrations retains its own level of trust and recognition and domain holders have been using these domain names as part of their business and personal identities since the early 1990’s.
Whilst the shorter, sleeker SLRs may seem like the sexier option at the moment, the reality is that it will take a long time for them to gain widespread support and recognition (if at all). For the foreseeable future, given that they have already been around for over 20 years, 3LRs will remain the most recognisable and trusted domain names within “.za”.
Allowing unrestricted and unauthorised SLRs that mimic existing 3LRs will undoubtedly lead to widespread confusion, risk and harm. It would create an intolerable situation if we simply allowed SLRs to proceed without first recognising the established prior rights of 3LRs and their effect on the public.
We should therefore do everything within our ability to avoid this confusion prior to and during the launch of the SLRs
- (I.E. “gumtree.za” vs. “gumtree.co.za”)
- (I.E “standardbank.za” vs. “standardbank.co.za”)
In order to minimise any confusion and the potential for abuse, existing 3LR holders should be given a priority right, over a reasonable period of time, to claim their corresponding SLRs (“Reciprocity”).
What have other ccTLDs done?
In their recent implementation of SLRs, Nominet (.uk), InternetNZ (.nz) and auDA (.au) have all implemented, or intend implementing, extensive mechanisms and policies to safeguard the existing rights and investments established by domain holders in their respective SLDs… in particular their commercial SLDs.
Whilst I intend writing more on the SLR experiences of these ccTLDs, it is worth noting that:
# Nominet (.uk) has implemented a 5 (five) year grandfathering clause for “co.uk” domain names registered prior to 10 June 2014. This means that an eligible domain holder of a co.uk domain would have the exclusive ability to register (claim) the corresponding “.uk” SLR for a period of 5-years from the inception of the SLR program. That 5-year period is due to end in 2019 and until then no one else can claim the SLR. [Also see the .uk SLR FAQs]
# InternetNZ (.nz) implemented a 6 (six) month Preferential Registration Eligibility (PRE) period for names registered in certain “.nz” SLDs prior to 11 February 2014. The PRE policy is a little more involved then the .uk model, but in broad terms it allowed an eligible registrant of a “co.nz” domain to register or reserve their corresponding “.nz” SLR, within a period of 6-months from the inception of the SLR program. [Also see the .nz SLR FAQs]
# auDA (.au) have not yet implemented their SLR program, but have indicated a strong inclination to do so in the near future. Based on the Final Report of the 2015 Names Policy Panel it is almost certain that auDA will implement some sort of priority SLR mechanism for existing 3LRs. The 2017 Policy Review Panel is expected to deliver an implementation policy for SLRs in August 2018.
Is there anything we can do to minimise possible confusion, abuse and unhappiness? Here are some of my high-level recommendations:
# Reserved Name List (RNL): Before opening up SLRs, the authorities should establish a comprehensive reserved name list identifying names (strings) that potentially conflict with any of the SLDs. These names should then be blocked (excluded) from being registered as SLRs. The reserved name list can also include SLRs that may pose a risk to the technical operation and stability of the .za namespace. We may want to go as far as prohibiting any 3-character (or less) SLRs?
# Conflict Resolution Policy: The authorities should develop and implement a transparent administrative policy and mechanism to identify and block existing and future SLRs that may conflict with an existing SLD. Keep in mind that potential conflicts may not only relate to rights abuses, but could also relate to technical conflicts within the namespace. It is imperative that the authorities are able to act quickly and decisively when one of these conflicts arises.
# Extending Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR): The authorities should extend the current .za ADR regulations to cover both SLRs and any 3rd level domains created in SLRs. It may be that the SLR itself does not pose an immediate conflict or risk, but rather that one of its sub-domains does. I.E “fnd.bank.za”. It goes without saying that the same ADR mechanism should apply to “brand1.za” as it does to “brand1.co.za”. As a matter of interest, Nominet (.uk) specifically prohibits “… the sale of third level registrations to unrelated third parties…”.
# Watch Services: As an extra level of security, the authorities could implement an automated watch service that notifies rights holder (3LR domain holders) of a conflicting SLR. Although the details would still need to be ironed out, the watch service could monitor all new SLRs and compare these to a watch list of 3LR names (strings). If a conflict is identified, the domain holder of the 3LR would receive an immediate notification from the registry, thus allowing them to consider their options and take the necessary remedial action.
I.E. An existing 3LR like “fnb.co.za” will result in the term “*fnb*” being added to the watch list. A watch notice would then be triggered if “fnb.za” or “fnbco.za” or “bankingfnb.za” or “myfnbco.za” is registered as an SLR.
# Reciprocity: Current 3LR holders must be given a priority right, over a reasonable period of time (12-24 months), to claim their corresponding SLRs. Due to its dominance in the commercial space, holders of 3LRs in “co.za” should be given top priority to claim their corresponding SLRs. If necessary, priority rights could also be extended to holders of 3LRs in the “org.za” and “net.za” SLDs, but then only if suitable mechanisms are in place to resolve conflicting claims between exiting domain name holders. (I.E. “bank.co.za” vs. “bank.org.za” vs. “bank.net.za”) .
# Pricing: Many 3LR holders will not be enamoured with the fact that they have to pay additional fees to obtain something they believe they already had. SLRs may be seen as an opportunity for price gouging and scare mongering and as such, I believe that a significant portion of the public, at least in the beginning, will regard SLRs as a grudge purchase. To minimise this impact pricing should be kept as low as possible and in line with 3LR pricing.
# Access: It doesn’t make sense to provide reciprocity and good pricing, but then make it difficult for the market to access the SLRs. It makes absolute sense that SLRs are obtained in exactly the same way that 3LDs are obtained. Use of the central registry platform and its widespread network of accredited registrars is therefore undeniably the best route to ensure open, equitable and timely access to the SLRs.
# Policy: Uniformity of policies and procedures between SLRs and open 3LRs could go a long way to provide an element of stability and reassurance to the market. In addition, uniform policies will also make it possible for participants to utilise existing infrastructure, know-how and resources to provision SLRs, thereby keeping costs and disruptions to a minimum.
# Communication: It goes without saying that good communication is always going to be a key success factor in this endeavour. Information and training must not only be provided to new and existing domain name holders, registrars, resellers and registry operators, but also to the general public and Internet user community. Issues of universal acceptance, trust and risk mitigation must be addressed. The public must be able to recognise, understand and accommodate the appearance of thousands of new SLRs in the market.
Call to Action
The above is simply a high-level overview of some of the complexities and challenges we are likely to face with the release of SLRs in the “.za” namespace. I have a number of further thoughts and recommendations that I will gladly share in subsequent posts. For now, I urge everyone to respond to zaDNA’s request for submissions and to highlight some of the complexities, risks and recommendations identified above. It is only with the broadest possible participation that we can ensure some degree of a workable solution in the final implementation of SLRs.
You are welcome to use this blank Feedback Template: [MS Word Doc].
The deadline for submissions is 16 April 2018 (17h00 SAST)