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In Battle for Names, it’s Country Vs. Company

FILE - People enter ICANN's public forum in Lisbon, Portugal in this 2007 photo.

These days, the term ”Amazon” is likely to conjure up thoughts of online shopping and e-books. But before the e-commerce behemoth came along, of course, people thought of “Amazon” as a South American rainforest.

So does the name “Amazon” belong to anyone, and if so, whom? The online retailer, or the governments with land touching the rainforest?

This dispute has emerged in the digital world, where companies like Amazon are staking claims on the uncharted territory of website names with geographic terms. Before, websites would just use generic top-level domains (gTLDs) like .com or .org. But in 2012, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) opened the floodgates by letting people apply for all manner of website domains -- including .amazon.

ICANN is in the process of approving hundreds of new gTLDs. But .amazon is pending because countries in the Amazon region argue they have a right to the domain. They are among many governments that say countries have priority when it comes to geographic gTLDs, which include terms considered to have geographic, national, cultural, ethnic, religious, or linguistic value.

“It’s not just that the process has been difficult for applicants, but it has been difficult as well for governments and it has been difficult for the communities,” Olga Cavalli, vice chair of ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC), said last week at the ICANN conference in Singapore.

Countries and companies are butting heads on a number of domain name issues. Some businesses want to buy up second-level domains, from .swiss to .china, as well as use the two-letter codes that symbolize territories in URLs.

In the hypothetical website, the two letters “na” denote Namibia. But Dasani may want to own the website, as part of its control of the “string” of domain names under .na.dasani, using “na” in the second level. Does it need approval from the Namibian government?

Some say yes, authorities have the right to defend internet names associated with their countries and protect their reputations.

“Italy rejects any automatic process of delegation of our country code,” that country’s GAC representative said at the conference.

The committee released a proposal last year for ICANN to avoid geographic gTLDs, “unless in agreement with the relevant governments.”

Businesses and civil society groups quickly tore into the proposal. They said it wrongly assumes international law protects names for sovereign governments beyond their borders, and would be a massive burden for registrants to seek approval from every country in question.

“The United States cannot concur with this proposal in any way, shape, or form,” U.S. delegate for GAC Suzanne Radell said.

IP Justice executive director Robin Gross warned that the restrictions would "slow freedom of expression" and "stifle innovation" among applicants who want to register certain domain names.

“This proposal sets a dangerous precedent for building government censorship into the domain name system and should be rejected,” Gross said.

GAC and other interest groups are trying to hammer out a solution in response. Geographic gTLDs remain a point of conflict, but business registrants are likely to see changes favoring them on second-level domains with country names and country codes.

At the end of the Singapore summit, the committee made new recommendations, this time for a database that divides countries into three categories: those that will approve domains with these names and codes, those that won’t, and those that will assess each case separately.