A typical top priority for any institution of higher education is protecting its institutional identity and reputation. It's a fairly safe assumption that most people who have worked in higher education for any length of time are at least aware of their organization's institutional identity standards. These policies often dictate when and where the different names of the institution and its logos and seals may be used. Specific colors and fonts are usually prescribed, and even specific typesetting guidelines are often specified. These standards may also include policies regarding the use of the official institutional Internet domain name and what content is appropriate to publish.
While these standards can sometimes be seen as a nuisance by those using them, they perform the important function of ensuring that official institutional documents intended for public consumption are consistent, recognizable, and professional. This protects both the identity and reputation of the institution.
The New Face of the World Wide Web
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the nonprofit organization that oversees the approval and assignment of top-level domains (TLDs). What's a TLD, you might be asking? It's the last part of a domain name — .com, .org, .net — or .edu in the case of higher education institutions.1 The preceding examples belong to the original seven generic top-level domains (gTLDs), which, up until a few years ago, had been joined by only country-specific TLDs like .nl (Netherlands) and .kr (South Korea) and a handful of new ones like .info and .biz.
That all changed in 2011 when ICANN relaxed the rules for the approval of new gTLDs. Since then, a flood of new gTLDs has become available. Some examples include .camera, .mortgage, .pizza, and .wtf. There are even non-Latin character domains such as .商店. As of this writing, over 1,500 gTLDs are available (a full list can be found here), and ICANN thinks that over 1,300 more could become available over the next few years.
Several of the original gTLDs have restrictions regarding who can register for them. For instance, .gov and .mil are restricted to official U.S. government and U.S. military websites, respectively. Likewise, .edu is restricted to only "post-secondary institutions that are institutionally accredited" or "university system offices, state coordinating offices or boards, community college district offices, or equivalent entities located within the United States."2 These gTLD restrictions are enforced by registrars, the organizations to which ICANN delegates the authority to manage the actual registration and maintenance of domain names within each gTLD. In fact, EDUCAUSE is the sole registrar for the .edu domain and administers .edu under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce.
A Rose by Any Other Domain Name
But what about all of those new domains? Do they have restrictions? Well, just like the original set of gTLDs, it depends on the name. An impressive number of these new gTLDs are brands such as .bmw and .google. In those cases, the company owning the brand is granted exclusive rights to use that gTLD, just like a trademark (view the PDF agreement). A large number of the new gTLDs, however, have no restrictions whatsoever and anyone can snatch them up.
Let's look at three of these new gTLDs: .education, .school, and .university. All three of these domains have no restrictions on who can register them. While the requirements for .edu registration prevent organizations other than accredited postsecondary institutions from obtaining them, anyone with $20 can buy a .education domain for an existing educational institution, if it's available.
Oh, and these new domain names — lots of them — are available. A casual search on a domain registrar reveals that the institutional domains of many colleges and universities under these three gTLDs are still up for grabs, first come, first served. And if a third party beats you to the punch and registers one of these domains first, it could be quite costly to buy it back, if it's even possible.3
.save, .my, .school
Some of you might be thinking, so what? Indeed, the lack of restrictions on these gTLDs means that they are inherently less legitimate and trustworthy than their .edu equivalents, so why should you care about them? The problem is that to the layperson they can appear quite legitimate, and this will become more problematic as the usage of these new domains becomes more commonplace. This presents very real security and identity risks for institutions and can jeopardize institutional reputation.
For instance, any of these three gTLDs could be used to great effect in phishing campaigns or man-in-the-middle attacks by tricking users into thinking a malicious link is legitimate. They could also be used to host defamatory or inappropriate content, potentially damaging the public image of the institution.
While .education, .school, and .university are three obvious domains relevant to educational institutions, there may be others your school may want to acquire. This is especially true as new gTLDs continue to become available. While it is likely unnecessary and financially infeasible to secure institutional domains in all available gTLDs, your institution should frequently reassess which domains it should secure and do so expeditiously.
The introduction of a host of new generic top-level domains has opened up a new frontier of naming on the World Wide Web. The very face of the Internet is undergoing a shift as the familiar naming conventions of .com, .org, and .edu are supplemented by a plethora of additional gTLDs.
Looking to the future, two things are certain: the number and variety of gTLDs will only continue to increase, and their usage will become more accepted and commonplace. For these reasons, it is important for institutions to be vigilant in securing these important pieces of intellectual property in order to protect their institutional identity and the security of their faculty, staff, and students.
- While ICANN has oversight of most gTLDs, the United States Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has direct oversight of the .edu top-level domain.
- Eligibility requirements for the .edu domain are available on the .edu administration website in the .edu Frequently Asked Questions section.
- There are some trademark protections available through ICANN's dispute resolution process, as well as U.S. law. It is worth reading more about the differences between trademark infringement and dilution.
Clinton Wadley (@clintwadley) is a computer science student at the University of Pittsburgh and a software engineer at TeleTracking Technologies.
© 2017 Clinton Wadley. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.