Authored by: David A. Einhorn and Alan Pate

ICANN is well on its way to the launch of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) with the first ones being approved as early as April 23rd.  The handful of TLDs currently in use, such as “.com”, “.org”, and “.edu”, may soon be joined by over 1000 gTLDs ranging from “.book” to “.football”.   While we have previously focused on intellectual property concerns and objections to these new gTLDs, the launch perhaps raises another important consideration:  What implications might the new gTLDs have on the security of the Internet itself?

At the end of last month, VeriSign, longstanding operator of the “.com” top-level domain, issued a highly critical assessment of the new gTLD program.  In its March 29 report, VeriSign described a range of potential issues, all suggesting that the launch on ICANN’s current timetable could undermine the stability and security of the Internet.  For VeriSign, the problem seems to be the rapid speed at which the launch is progressing combined with ICANN’s unrealistic expectations that the existing Internet infrastructure will adapt.  Certificate authorities, root server operators, and VeriSign itself, are described as not being prepared for the technical implications the influx of new gTLDs will bring. According to VeriSign, this ultimately puts the “safety and security of Internet users, and the infrastructure itself” at risk. 

Due to the seriousness of these allegations, the Intellectual Property Owner’s Association has taken the position that the launch of the new gTLDs be delayed until these concerns have been properly evaluated and addressed.

Further, in a recent letter to the CEO of ICANN, PayPal expressed similar security concerns.  Specifically, PayPal raises the possibility that the new gTLD program might dangerously interfere with the security of private domains.  Private domains, as their name implies, exist outside the public Internet and for that reason are most often employed for security reasons. One of the most common examples of a private domain is a corporate intranet.  Corporate intranets are typically used to host services such as internal document management, email, or other web-based business applications.  Being private, they do not have to “resolve” or go to public top-level domain’s such as .com or .org, and can by-and-large choose their own top-level domains.  One of most common domains for a business intranet, and the example PayPal uses in its letter, is the “.corp” domain.

The crux of PayPal’s concern is what will happen when “.corp” becomes a generic TLD?   In some circumstances, they argue, it is possible a computer, smartphone, or other device could actually be deceived into connecting to the public .corp as if it were connected to the private .corp. Once connected, the possibility of confidential data being compromised could be serious. 

How serious of a problem could this be?  Statistics PayPal cite show nearly 10% of the total query load on public root servers represent just the top ten most frequently used private domains.  In other words, a large portion of internet traffic consists of devices trying to connect to a private address on the public internet.  This suggests that there is ample possibility for foul play should those traditionally private domain names be delegated to the public. 

PayPal’s recommendation is relatively straightforward: ICANN should take the most popular private domain names off the market. These include strings such as .corp, .local, .home, .internal, and .private.  Not doing so, PayPal claims, would put “millions of users and high-value systems at considerable risk.”  To date, there are outstanding gTLD applications for the .corp and .home domains.

For VeriSign, nothing short of a temporary halt to the process would be satisfactory.  In a recent interview, however, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade indicated that ICANN had no intention of delaying the issuance of the new gTLDs.  Nevertheless, this past week, perhaps in response to VeriSign’s report, ICANN did announce some additional protections it would be employing—“Emergency Back-End Registry Operators” or EBEROs. These EBEROs will work to guarantee that websites hosted on new gTLDs will resolve in the event any gTLD fails. The EBEROs will be scattered across different regions of the globe to eliminate the possibility that any one natural disaster could affect all EBEROs at once. This is a measure VeriSign had suggested.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen what data security, privacy, or other concerns may be implicated by the influx of new gTLDs.  For the many businesses and entities that could be affected by the program, it is important to remain vigilant of the new top-level domains on the horizon and how they may impact existing systems.