The Internet traces its roots back to the late 1960s when “computers at Stanford and UCLA connected for the first time.” There were incremental advancements from that point forward, but the start of the Internet boom came in the mid-1990s. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of Internet users increased from around 16 million to near 250 million. This trend has continued, and it was estimated that there were around 2.4 billion people who use the Internet (“end users”) as of June 2012. As the Internet continues to expand, one crucial question becomes whether the Internet infrastructure is capable of adequately supporting the exponentially increasing volume.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”), responsible for maintaining the Internet domain name system, believes the answer to this question is “no” and, as a result, is in the midst of implementing a sweeping change to a fundamental aspect of the Internet infrastructure. ICANN is currently in the process of rolling out a new generic top-level domain (“gTLD”) system to help support the increased demand for viable website addresses. This program will potentially change the way the Internet is structured and may impact everyone from large companies to end users.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding these dramatic changes is the potential impact on trademark law and fair competition. Trademark law has three basic interests: the consumer, the trademark owner, and competitors. Often trademark issues are analyzed principally from the perspective of the trademark owner while subjugating consumers’ considerations or ignoring them altogether. Regardless of the impact on trademark owners and competitors, there is a high likelihood that consumers will suffer adverse impacts resulting from the expansion of top-level domains. Trademark law can affect consumers within the realms of consumer confusion, efficiency, and monetary cost. ICANN’s new program will likely have negative ramifications in all of these areas.