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Top Level Domains/Low-Level Trustmarks

If you’re not immediately familiar with the term top level domain (TLD), think of “.com” and “.net” and “.edu” – they are all top-level domains, along with hundreds of others, and by the way, they are not limited to three characters anymore.

In the early days of the Internet, domain names were free for the asking, and I stocked up on quite a few for no other reason than a gut feeling they had some value. I did ultimately sell a lot of them, including several Fortune 500 companies who bought their corporate names back from me. By the time I realized there might be a bigger opportunity here, the rules of the game changed and big companies that had previously shown up with checkbooks now showed up with lawyers. Ah, well!

But for all my domain name hoarding, I couldn’t ever get domains names with the “.edu” TLD because they were reserved for schools. Similarly, “.net” was reserved for Internet Service Providers back then, and “.org” was reserved for non-profits. These distinctions were widely understood back then, and even today, I hear people telling me some organization “must” be a non-profit because it has a “.org” domain name. Old naming conventions die hard. More importantly, people are hungry for trustmarks.

But TLDs were never great trustmarks, for two reasons. First, validating an organization’s credentials before handing out a domain name is hard and expensive work. Second, domain names don’t sell for a lot, so you can only make money with volume. The pickier you are, the less money you make.

Despite this, the non-profit sector is now pushing the “.ngo” TLD. Think of it as a do-over of the “.org” TLD, because the operator of the domain is trying to limit sales to non-profit entities with the explicit hope that the TLD will become a trustmark over time. Similarly, the AICPA, the big association of certified public accountants, is in a fierce battle to control the forthcoming “.cpa” TLD, again with the hope it can restrict its use to certified public accountants and build it into a trustmark.

My view is that TLDs make for poor trustmarks. The economics make it hard to enforce standards, and there are too many sleazy operators in the business that drag down the credibility of TLDs across the board. The need for online trustmarks remains high. Who better than data companies to seize the opportunity?