Web Wars

Jacob Malthouse, 34, and Trevor Bowden, 38, the founders of Big Room Inc., have a relaxed, confident air—big laughs, strong handshakes. The two met while working for the UN in Switzerland, and sitting now in a coffee shop in their adopted new neighbourhood of Chinatown, they talk about their end goal—the Internet’s new .eco designation—like it’s already theirs.

A regulating body called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN, Malthouse’s former employer) oversees the infrastructure of the Internet, which for years has been organized by a handful of suffixes at the end of every URL you type: the generic .com, the heartwarming .org, various country designations (.ca, .jp), and the dreadful .biz. But starting in 2008, ICANN opened its thinking to a new breed of domain names, and after a few years of study, fussing, and delays, the Internet marketplace is now open.

New names—think .coke, .bmw—will make it easier to verify that the site we are typing is the site we want, and will stop imposters from stealing intellectual property. That’s worth a lot to brands, and the benefits will be measured not just in cash (astute marketers are urging their clients to be prepared for hefty fees—applications start at US$185,000) but in goodwill, too. It’s easy to foresee battles over who owns the rights to certain names; for example, who gets to run .amazon—the bookseller or a tour company in Brazil?

So we’re at the dawn of the dot-brand era, which experts say is going to change our Internet experience significantly. But this is also the advent of the dot-community. And this is what sets Big Room’s current project apart. When Malthouse and Bowden hatched their plan to bid for the newly conceived domain name .eco they decided not to go the commercial route in favour of the more difficult claim—proving they serve the ecological community. Gaining this community status has its perks: these domains are offered to the community in question before they’re auctioned to the highest corporate bidder. So the two (along with a partner in New Haven, Connecticut) started rallying the ecological troops, beginning with local triple-bottom-line investors like Renewal Partners and David Levi.

“I was very quickly enamoured by the model they’d put together,” says Levi, CEO of Working Enterprises, Canada’s leading venture capital group. “What we’ve added is a combination of finance, business expertise, and strategy.” He and his partners recognized .eco not only as a valuable investment that could make a lot of money (he himself has pledged to donate all his company’s returns to the Columbia Foundation) but as an opportunity to create a focal point for a community in need of cohesion.

The “sustainable Internet”

team then went after heavyweights like the David Suzuki Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, Green Cross International, and Greenpeace. Big Room secured technical support from the same people who service .org and auditing services from Deloitte. And they went out actively courting the often-fractious environmental community, asking grassroots groups for input on what .eco should look like and how they should run it.

The consensus they discovered is this: rather than working like a badge of honour (.eco means you’re green), the letters would signal environmental transparency—companies would be required to create an “eco profile” using data most of them already have under lock and key or keep buried in hard-to-find web pages. A significant portion of the revenue from the sale of individual domain names (www.what-have-you.eco) would go to a wide swath of international environmental organizations, vetted and decided on by an arms-length foundation. So who could get a .eco? Almost anyone, so long as they’re transparent and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. “There’s always going to be bad actors,” says Bowden. “But it’s like paying your taxes—most will make honest disclosures. So we’re here to encourage that.”

Despite all the big-name supporters and meticulous preparation, Big Room’s application is no slam-dunk. Community requests can be tricky, says Antony Van Couvering, CEO of Minds + Machines, a company specializing in acquiring top-level domain names. Van Couvering, who was one of ICANN’s founders, represents a California-group that also covets the .eco brand. Van Couvering recently published a blog post questioning whether anyone would be accepted as a community under the new rules. When his clients approached him about securing the rights to .eco, he looked into the community route and decided it was too risky—the restrictions on his clients would limit how they used the space—and there were no guarantees they would win. ICANN’s rules on what constitutes a community are strict: the name can’t mean anything else, the label has to be the single word the community is commonly known as, and the grading is harsh (a community application has to score 14 out of 16, not a lot of room for error). For good reason, says Van Couvering. “It could end up being a loophole you could drive a truck through.”

The kicker for Van Couvering’s critique of the guidelines is that an application won’t pass if anyone from the community objects. “Let me put it this way. Suppose I’m one of the .musics and someone applies to represent the music community. I’m probably going to object. Or I’m going to find someone to object.” The way he sees it, “community is a wonderful word that people respond to emotionally,” but it’s tough to sell as a business concept.

This isn’t about to deter Malthouse and Bowden, who stress that while there is a risk in applying as a community, the greater risk would be gambling that a corporate group would safeguard the opportunity. “There’s a big difference between commercial and community. It’s a bit like a country run by the state or run by the people,” Malthouse explains. “This is the one shot for the eco-community to own the space, so we hope we can win it for them. I’d like to think that it won’t come down to an auction. We hope people will look at what we’ve done, read our proposal, and think, ‘Why would I object to this?’”