In 1996, Microsoft bought the domain Slate.com from a guy named John Slate. Back in the early days of the Web, it paid to have a snazzy dot-com name to call your own. In conversation, the proper noun slate can refer to, among other things, a restaurant in Maine; a furniture-design studio in Illinois; a turkey breed; a private-party venue in New York; the student newspaper of Pennsylvania's Shippensburg University; or a Web magazine founded by Microsoft. Humans can usually figure out which of these Slates you're referring to based on the context, but computers weren't that smart—whichever one of those institutions pounced on Slate.com would get a boost in traffic from browsers looking for all those other slate s. As a consequence of this same-name problem, scores of domain-name lawsuits have flared up over the years, as have attempts to game the system. "Cybersquatters" could once make good money by buying up domains that were similar to those of organizations with deep pockets and then selling them back to the organizations at huge premiums. (That wasn't the case with John Slate; Microsoft's lawyers propositioned him without revealing that they worked for the software giant.)
Now ICANN, the international body in charge of domain names, says it has a way to rid the Web of cybersquatting. Late last month, the group voted to create Web addresses that end in a much wider variety of letters than .com, .org, .net, and the dozens of country-specific suffixes that are currently available. When the proposal goes into effect later this year, businesses, municipalities, and other large organizations will be able to purchase domains of their own creation. The city of New York could buy its own suffix—to get to a city site, you'd type Police.nyc or Fire.nyc, and you'd e-mail Michael Bloomberg at Mayor@cityhall.nyc. Companies might do something similar: Twitter could register .twitter and give each of its users a quicker way to get to their pages—Fmanjoo.twitter instead of Twitter.com/fmanjoo. And even though ICANN plans to prohibit some top-level domains on moral grounds, the adult industry is expected to scoop up lots of names, from .xxx to .escort to .2girls1cup.
ICANN argues that adding new descriptive domains will reduce the chance for confusion. Slate design studio in Illinois, for instance, could buy Slate.illinois or Slate.furniture, creating an online identity separate from that of this magazine. And while cybersquatting is already prohibited by trademark law in many countries, including the United States, ICANN promises to implement a strict international review process to prevent miscreants from registering names that they shouldn't own. Only Facebook will be allowed to manage the .facebook domain, for example, and if someone tries to buy Slate.webmagazine, Slate's lawyers will be able to shut it down in a jiffy.
But ICANN's plan comes about five years too late—cybersquatting isn't a problem anymore. Indeed, ICANN's plan to sell all these new top-level domains at very high prices—tens of thousands of dollars or more—seems like a scam, because domain names themselves just don't matter that much nowadays. Web browsers have gotten a lot smarter since the 1990s, and they're now pretty good at determining what we want when we type in names that have many possible meanings. If you're a fan of the Slate private-party venue in New York and visit its site often, you've just got to type S-L-A into your browser's address bar and the site will pop up in a drop-down list. That Slate would be foolish to pay very much to buy Slate.party.
What's more, lots of people now abandon the address bar entirely and rely, instead, on search engines to get around the Web. How do folks get to Match.com? According to Web traffic analysts, people type Match.com into Google and then click the top result. Are these people stupid? No, they're smart: It takes a lot of work to remember every company's exact domain name (is General Motors at GM.com or GeneralMotors.com or General-Motors.com?) and it's much faster to let Google keep track. Chrome, Google's Web browser, combines the address bar and search bar into a single field, which lets you use search terms as Web addresses. You don't have to remember Josh Marshall's long URL—Talkingpointsmemo.com—to get to his blog. Just type in josh marshall, and Chrome displays Google's top results.
To be sure, cybersquatters are still plying their trade, and according to trademark experts commissioned by ICANN (PDF), domain-name disputes have lately been on the rise. At the same time, though, you see Web sites getting much more adventurous in the domain names they pick—look at the Lolcats site Icanhascheezburger.com or the social-bookmarking site Del.icio.us (which later changed its name to Delicious.com). These names suggest a nonchalance about URLs. It no longer matters whether a domain name is really long or has an unconventional spelling; people will be able to find it, anyway.
And for cybersquatters, there are now other places to play. Social-networking sites are now the Web's biggest properties, so getting your identity on Facebook or Twitter has become much more important than getting a good domain. Recently Facebook offered its users vanity URLs—e.g., www.facebook.com/farhad.manjoo—on a first-come, first-served basis; the addresses were snapped up at a rate of more than 500 per second. Twitter, meanwhile, has become a haven for imposters. The site has had to close down accounts impersonating Exxon Mobil, Kanye West, and my colleague Emily Bazelon, among many others. Twitter has vowed to become more vigilant in its fight against poseurs, and surely it will implement a plan to do so. Because Twitter has total control over its names, it can deal with squatters much more quickly than is possible on the domain-name system, which is administered by thousands of registrars across the world.
But squatters wouldn't get very far even if Twitter never got its act together. Last year, someone got on Twitter and began tweeting as Shaquille O'Neal. When the real Shaq got wind of the faker, he didn't offer to pay for his identity; rather, he set up another name—The_Real_Shaq—and set the record straight. Now, it no longer matters that Shaq doesn't own his Twitter name; when you Google Shaq Twitter, The_Real_Shaq comes up first (he's got more than 1.5 million followers). We all should follow Shaq's example—don't ever pay for a screen name or a domain name again.