I say London, you think England? Or did Ontario come to mind? The duplication of town names around the world is endless. One town may be the original “Kingston” but does that mean it has exclusive claim to marketing rights? What about all the other Kingstons? This dilemma has been mute until now because commercials and brochures promoting a town could easily append a logo or country name to distinguish themselves. Now this Right to the Name debate is heating up with news from ICANN (the body regulating the internet) that within a year or two they’ll sanction the creation of new top-level domains for cities. Instead of more “.coms” you’ll be seeing .nyc, .paris, and most definitely .berlin. I want to explain what dotCities are, their supposed utility, how I dragged Ottawa into them mix and why I’ve since changed my position.
First, the technical spiel. dotCities are viewed by ICANN as generic top-level domains, otherwise known as gtlds. A few of these exist already, e.g. .cat. Creating one of these things isn’t easy. Just to apply you need $300,000. Applications go through a rigorous process. ICANN needs to make sure the soon-to-be registrar is up to the job. Add on top of that a world’s worth of internet governance issues. The short of it is, a new TLD of any sort means permanently altering Earth’s root servers. This, fellow internetizen, is not something those responsible for Internet stability do on a whim. In fact intellectual property is a big part of Internet expansion. But that’s another story all together.
If the stability of the Internet is top-priority, why is ICANN allowing dotCities to be established? In reality, it’s due to persistent lobbying of ICANN by those who believe in the cause, namely the dotBerlin group and others. So what exactly do they believe in with such passion? What exactly is the utility of a city top-level domain, say schools.nyc, newcomers.nyc, or hotels.nyc?
To stay with the New York City example, Thomas Lowenhaupt is the voice for Connecting.NYC. He and Vancouver Community Informatics professor Michael Gurstein co-authored a White Paper (.pdf) in 2007 titled Toward City-TLDs in the Public Interest.
In the section creatively titled ‘Digital Housing for Homeless Cities’, the authors wrote:
“To make global cities “real” again in the electronic age, the first thing that’s needed is a piece of electronic “land”, with an address, that provides these cities with the same opportunity to occupy and be found in electronic space as they have in physical space. In Internet terms this would be through the allocation to these cities of top level domains or TLDs. Think of it this way: once such a city has an address (a TLD) it can print stationary, send out invitations, and invite friends and family over for a festival.nyc. Once people come on over, they will see that it’s a nice place to visit and soon they and their friends and neighbors will be settling. If established in an organized and intuitive way, in collaboration with local residents, government, and other organizations, and using web 2.0 features like community page ranking, neighbor will find neighbor and people from outside the region will readily find the city’s resources.”
In 2008 I began studying City TLDs and by mid-2009 I had consumed the kool-aid outright. That summer I travelled to New York City for one of about six global consultations hosted by ICANN. I connected with city-minded advocates and expressed my interest in promoting the cause in Ottawa, first as Ottawa Valley Group, then as Connecting.Ottawa. I even created a spiffy logo. Ottawa was added to the City TLD map. I had a name, logo, and global recognition but little local interest. I knew a public conversation was necessary but had little idea of how to sustain one. Eventually I had to confess that Ottawa wasn’t New York City, nor was it Berlin. The needs of these global cities seem to necessitate the adoption of frontier technology. Urban theory says that a city becomes something different when it passes the 4 million mark. My foray into this murky zone of competing ICANN interests helped me focus on the basics. What is Ottawa’s Internet infrastructure? Could we call it an information ecosystem? The necessity for open municipal data is pretty clear. But what is the role of open data in civil society? What tools are in place to harness newly shared data? Ottawa is awesome at making apps. So what are the basic [digital] utilities that still need to be put in place? I know a few seniors experiencing missed connections. Would a regional calendar be helpful? What else can be imagined? I learned a valuable lesson: work best with with what we’ve got.
At the December 4th hack-a-thon hosted at City Hall there was one guy who I think we could have listened to more. I’m pretty sure he was the guy who runs the Ottawa business directory. He was virtually screaming out. “Look what I’ve already accomplished!” Implicit in his speech was an unheeded challenge: can we augment what has already been created?