Can A Domain Change the World?

Competitors battle for the right to register your .eco website—and save the environment in the process.

The Internet runs on so-called Top-Level Domains, suffixes like .com, .org and .edu that are an intergral part of a website's name. In February 2010, the not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is projected to begin the review process for thousands of new Top-Level Domains, including .eco.

Two for-profit companies, California-based Dot Eco LLC and Vancouver-based Big Room, will be submitting competing proposals for control of the domain. What's at stake is more than who will reap the projected windfall from registration fees for millions of .eco domains. (The wholesale price of a .com domain, for instance, is around US$7.) Whichever company wins will distribute a portion of its profits to various eco-charities, as both companies have promised to do.

Domain Dispute

Before ICANN can decide between the two companies, however, it will have to wade through the wreckage of what can only be described as an Internet flame war. The battle of words started, according to documents released by Dot Eco, when one of Big Room's three founders posted comments to online coverage of the .eco domain questioning, among other things, Dot Eco's competence to run the domain. Dot Eco fired back with a 17-page press release that concludes with a financial analysis that estimates that Dot Eco, with its strategy of donating 57 percent of its profits (after expenses), will ultimately donate millions more to environmental causes than Big Room. (Big Room has pledged to donate 25 percent of revenue, before expenses, on sales of .eco domains.)

Despite their mutual antagonism, the two companies have a great deal in common: Both have big-name backers. Dot Eco has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and Al Gore, and has as one of its founders a producer of An Inconvenient Truth; Big Room has been endorsed by Green Cross International and TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which oversees the EcoLogo program and is well-known for its analysis of greenwashing tactics in the marketplace. The founders of Big Room also started, an effort to wade through the hundreds of eco labels used around the world.

Both companies also want to donate a large portion of the funds they collect to environmental causes, and both have proposed ways to prevent companies from using the .eco domain in the service of greenwashing.

Dot Eco has proposed that rather than using a restrictive registration process, which, they claim, would put a dent in sign-ups and lower revenue, and therefore the amount that could be donated to environmental causes, it might use the community to "flag" inappropriate registrations after the fact.

Big Room has proposed a similar approach: While it would seek to gather information that goes well beyond what is gathered in a typical domain name registration process, submission of this information could be voluntary.

Data Mine

Ultimately, however, Big Room is as focused on gathering this data as it is on donating money to environmental causes. “We want to collect information, aggregate it, build a platform of it and give it away," says Trevor Bowden, one of the three founders of Big Room. Bowden imagines that software developers might be able to create tools that would allow users to sift through vast amounts of data submitted by companies and individuals with .eco registrations.

Big Room is also distinguished by transparency—currently, anyone can register at and comment on their draft proposals for everything from how they will govern the not-for-profit foundation that would distribute the money they collect to what kind of information will be gathered at sign-up.

While the company declined to comment directly on the dustup with Dot Eco, Bowden did note that in some ways the policies of Big Room with respect to .eco are still to be determined.

"I think that the way that we've structured this [Top-Level Domains] bid speaks to how we think .eco should be run—which is that we have to think about some of these big questions," says Bowden. "How do we govern this resource? How do we share the benefits from a resource like this? How do we ensure that .eco progresses over time and remains useful—and timely and an effective transparency tool? These are some of the big questions we're putting out to the community right now."

Do you think the .eco top-level domain should get the greenlight? Comment below.