Internationalized Domain Names (IDN) Committee

Briefing Paper on Internet Keyword Issues
15 February, 2002


Recent commercial initiatives in the non-DNS Internet identifier market have caused considerable concern around the potential for Internet user confusion between domain names (including either ASCII or "internationalized" hostnames) and certain Internet "keyword" offerings.

This briefing paper provides background information, defines the potential problems, and reviews the policy considerations and issues from an ICANN perspective. It is accompanied by a statement from the ICANN IDN Committee advising strongly against the introduction of Internet keywords using the dot (".") as a separator, on the grounds that (1) that format would generate needless user confusion with DNS domain names, and (2) there is a vast range of alternatives to the dotted notation format that now characterizes DNS hostnames.


An Internet "keyword" can be defined as an alias (possibly localized) for a fully-qualified domain name or URL. In many of these systems, one keyword matches exactly one DNS name. Hence, there is no categorization function (in the traditional sense) involved, nor is there a search process that could yield more than one DNS domain name.


According to some reports, several commercial providers of non-DNS Internet identifiers are considering the marketing of proprietary non-ASCII Internet keyword services that would appear to users in a dotted notation format - i.e., a format in which different segments (or "labels") of the keyword are separated by a period (or dot, "."). Such keywords could take the form of multiple character strings connected by a dot, such as:


It is entirely conceivable that such a service would involve the marketing of non-ASCII keywords in which the final segment is a generic word in a non-English language, such as "company" or "museum" - in other words, a term corresponding to an existing or potential DNS top-level domain.

Given the widespread lack of familiarity among users with the technical details of the domain name system, keywords in dotted notation format are likely to be confused for domain names by many users. Domain names (or, more accurately, "DNS hostnames") are immediately recognizable to the public in large part due to their unique taxonomy, characterized by the DNS's use of the period to separate different hierarchically organized labels. For that reason, it is reasonable to conclude that many Internet users are likely to confuse '<non-ASCII>.<non-ASCII>' keyword offerings with domain names.

The danger behind such confusion lies in the possibility that a purchaser of a <non-ASCII>.<non-ASCII> keyword will be surprised, in the future, to find that an identical string has been made available directly in the DNS, and registered by someone else. Such an outcome is entirely possible, because the advancing IDN standards within the Internet Engineering Task Force ("IETF") will likely permit the use of non-ASCII characters (encoded to ACE equivalents) in top-level domain labels.

In sum, the use of a dotted notation format in proprietary keyword services threatens to create significant user confusion (and consequent user unhappiness) by blurring the distinction between Internet keywords and DNS domain names. Given the likely evolution of the DNS to accommodate non-ASCII characters, there is a potential that identical strings could be registered and used as domain names and keywords.

Indeed, some might argue that the only plausible purpose behind the use of periods as separators is to generate user confusion, in an attempt to stake a "first claim" to any new and matching IDN namespace in the DNS.


While the IDN Committee is strongly concerned about the likelihood of user confusion from the use of a dotted notation format in Internet keywords, it does not suggest that ICANN should somehow expand its role to include the coordination of proprietary keyword services.

In general, ICANN is responsible for coordination of the DNS and IP address allocation systems. ICANN is not responsible for policy matters that arise in the Internet layers above the DNS, such directory services, search services, and the content of Internet communications. Even if ICANN wanted to get involved in such matters (and it does not), it has no practical authority to implement policies there.

Thus, ICANN does not have any direct policy responsibility for proprietary keyword systems that may cause the user to think that she is registering or using a DNS domain name. A keyword system is a separate technology layer that operates above and independently from the DNS.


In response to the foregoing analysis, the IDN Committee has issued recommendations in a Statement on IDN Keyword Issues.

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