Why ".mobi" is Bad for the Web
By Mark Frauenfelder, Fri Dec 17 07:30:00 GMT 2004

On December 14, ICANN gave the go-ahead to the ".mobi" top level domain. Does it stand for "more odious business interests" or "might obnoxiously break the Internet?"

In the late 1990s, the Internet's domain name system was under the control of a single individual. His name was Jon Postel, and he could rightly be described as one of the fathers of the Internet (He, Vint Cerf, and Danny Cohen sketched out the ideas for the Internet Protocol many years ago on a piece of cardboard.) With his long gray beard and quiet manner, Postel was the beloved director of the Information Science Institute's Computer Networks Division, which was under contract with the US government to oversee many of the functions the Internet.

From his office in Marina Del Rey, California, Postel also oversaw the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which issued IP addresses and handled top level domain names. I interviewed him a few months before his death in October 1998 about the commercialization of domain name registrations. His answers were polite and not very provocative. But when I turned off my tape recorder, he said to me, "It's all about money, now."

Six years later, Postel's words echoed in my head as I read the news on December 14 that ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international organization Postel had created to replace IANA) had given the green light for two new top level domains, ".jobs" and ".mobi". (These come on the heels of an October decision to approve .travel and .post.)

".mobi" is intended for use with mobile devices. On the surface it appears to be a good idea -- because there's an increasing number of mobile devices that can access the Internet, and .mobi will be used to deliver content tailor-made for mobile devices' small screens and limited capabilities.

But, as others have pointed out, new domains are of little benefit to anyone but the companies that charge money to register domain names. These registrars pay ICANN $45,000 to consider proposals for new domains. That's chump change compared to the amount they'll rake in from companies who will be forced to register under these new domains in order to protect their trademarks, especially when you consider that the coalition behind ".mobi" plans to auction off prime keywords to the highest bidder. ("taxi.mobi" ought to bring in a pretty penny.)

But forget they money grubbing here. After all, that's just business as usual. The real problem with .mobi is that it actually damages the integrity of the Internet itself. One of the most vocal opponents to adding new Top Level Domains (TLDs) is Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. While he doesn't think new TLDs are necessary to anyone but domain registrars, he especially dislikes TLDs that promote the idea that the Web should be divided up into different device dependent areas. Berners-Lee, who heads the World Wide Web Consortium (the primary standards body for the Web) thinks .mobi is the kind of thing that *breaks* the Web.

I spoke to Berners-Lee about this a couple of months ago for a story I wrote about him that appeared in MIT Technology Review. He strongly opposed the creation of .mobi top level domain: "To segregate content into a .mobi corral is the wrong way to do it ... obviously if you put a .mobi at the end of a domain name then youíre saying 'thatís a special place for stuff you can see on your cell phone.' Well, what happens when I bookmark it on my cell phone, synchronize it with my computer, and later I click on the bookmark on my desktop computer? Whatís going to happen? Will I get the cell phone information on the desktop? That would be a shame. So really, itís important to keep the Web devices independent and get Web designers to use all the clever techniques for making the data as re-usable as possible."

(Here's a complete list of Tim Berners-Lee's reasoned arguments against ".mobi")

ICANN wouldn't comment on their decision. When I asked an ICANN spokesperson to explain why they made their decision, she wrote "there's probably not much more to say beyond the published resolutions, which go into a little more detail of what has to happen next." The links she provided here, here and here don't explain the reasoning behind ICANN's decision. And when I approached a board member of ICANN, he told me, "I can't comment publicly on .mobi outside of what appears on the board resolutions."

It's unfortunate when an organization set up to manage a public resource such as the Internet gives its own board members a gag order. Maybe it's time to reboot ICANN and run it the way Jon Postel envisioned it.