Occupy Protesters: Lay Claim to the New Top-Level Domains for Cities!

David Bollier is a Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center.

 As the Occupy Wall Street protesters contemplate “what next?” – and as they ponder how to combine a visionary agenda with achieveable, short-term political goals – I have a suggestion. The Occupy forces in hundreds of cities should petition their local governments to acquire a new “top-level Internet domain” for their city, and to manage that patch of cyberspace as a local commons.

Even Internet sophisticates are not really tracking this issue, but the ownership and control of the new city TLDs could provide enormous new opportunities for citizens to transform their local political cultures, economies and everyday life.

Top-level domains, or TLDs, are the suffixes at the end of Internet addresses, as in .com, .org and .edu. The international body that manages TLDs is called ICANN, for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It recently approved a plan that will authorize cities to acquire their own TLDs, as in .nyc, .paris and .berlin. If properly constituted, the city TLDs could serve as “open greenfields for new local governance structures.” Unfortunately, the new city TLDs are not likely to serve this role if traditional city governments simply sell off the TLDs to private interests. Transformative governance will occur only if the TLDs are managed as digital commons accountable to city residents. (See my previous blog on this topic.)

We’ve seen how opportunities to use public assets can be squandered through the kind of backdoor privatization that city governments love to promote (the famous “public/private partnerships”). Just look at Zucotti Park itself, a “privately owned public space” that is mostly controlled by its private owner, and only indirectly by the city – and hardly at all by New Yorkers except through their extraordinary “occupation” of the site. (More on “privately owned public spaces” here.)

Why is it important that the commoners lay claim to the new city TLDs? Because they would assure that local citizens could more readily communicate with each other, participate in their self-governance locally, and help design and transform the physical and social dimensions of their city. The city TLDs could help citizens reclaim their own cities.

Right now, citizens who want to communicate online about local concerns have to open a Facebook group, which opens the door to the corporate data-mining of their personal information and all the other rules that Facebook imposes to advance its business interests. Or citizen initiatives have to be located via Google, which means that a local project could be buried among thousands of search results. We’ve also seen how the U.S. Government has gone after digital citizen protests that it dislikes — e.g., WikiLeaks — and tried to shut it down or spy upon it. (Is Facebook sharing the names of Occupy Wall Street sympathizers who post on Facebook?)

The city TLDs would help people establish more robust, secure, trustworthy local presences online. Local information and projects could be accessed more easily, and people would participate more readily as well.

With a city TLD, citizen-based projects in Oakland and Denver and New York City could have an easily identified local presence in the vast, undifferentiated global space of the Internet. If you wanted to find out what’s going on in the public schools of Denver (from the perspective of commoners), you could go to “publicschools.denver.” If you wanted to find a listing of restaurants in Jackson Heights, New York, you could go to “restaurants.jacksonheights.nyc.” Got a problem with garbage collection? You could go to “garbage.brooklyn.nyc.” The web addresses would provide an easy, intuitive way to access information about your neighborhood and city – and to participate in wikis, social networking and other activities that could empower you as a citizen.

These city TLDs need to be regarded as core infrastructure that belongs to the commons – and used to serve common needs. They should not be regarded as a windfall to be sold off by city governments for private commercial purposes. This, unfortunately, has been the customary approach to using domain names – sell as many as you can and try to make lots of money.

But it’s important to see that managing the city TLDs as commons would generate at least as much “value” for the residents of cities; it’s just that this value would belong to everyone. It would not necessarily be monetized, and would be created by everyone. Like an open-source project, the value would stay in the commons, and not be siphoned off to a proprietary business venture with anonymous distant investors.

It has been pointed out that cities can already use the .gov TLD to post government information. Well, yes, but one point of the Occupy demonstrations is that the people – not government or corporations – should have greater control over major decisions affecting our lives. We’ve seen how corporations and governments tend to collude to advance private market interests over all else.

The TLDs would give the Occupy forces a real, practical opportunity to institutionalize democratic governance in their own cities – a permanent Zucotti Park in cyberspace, as it were. City governments might have to authorize a nonprofit to run the TLD, but a commons-based organization (in the style of OWS) could provide the kind of transparency, participation and consensus governance and access that governments so often fail to provide.

The point is to ensure that this precious cyber-infrastructure is used to serve the public good. Why should we let city governments auction off the TLDs to the highest bidder so that the Hyatt or Hilton hotel chain ends up owning “hotels.nyc”? Instead of giving away that web address to a distant corporation in perpetuity, why not have a commons-based entity that would rent out the listings for hotels on “brooklyn.nyc,” and use that revenue to create citizen-controlled “local spaces” on the Internet? You could have a commoners-managed TLD that would host “yoga.brooklyn.nyc” to locate yoga studios, and “potholes.queens.nyc” to report a pothole to be fixed, and “crime.midtown.nyc” to review the police blotter of recent crimes.

Imagine if the neighborhood of Jackson Heights in New York City had its own domain name ending with “jacksonheights.nyc,” and there were various permutations such as “libraries.jacksonheights.nyc” and “schools.jacksonheights.nyc.” Imagine if these web-locations could help focus citizen creativity, discussion and governance.

Much of the energy for a commons-based vision of city TLDs is coming from Thomas Lowenhaupt, director of Connecting.NYC Inc. Connecting.NYC Inc. is a project dedicated to “Imagining New York’s Home on the Internet.” Lowenhaupt and his band of partners are trying to persuade New York City’s government to establish a commons-based governance regime for the .nyc TLD, and to treat it as an invaluable public asset that is akin to the street-grid system that was imposed in Manahattan in the late 1800s, making the city streets far more navigable. (A wiki for the project can be found here and its blog can be found here.)

Lowenhaupt rejects the “the-more-TLD-names-sold-the-better” business model that most domain registry companies use and that city governments are likely to emulate. “We see a more appropriate model for cities being indicators of social and economic benefit,” he said. The “success indicators” for city TLDs, he continued, should focus on:

    • # city’s businesses on the TLD
    • # government services available on the TLD
    • # smart portals
    • % civic organizations using the TLD
    • % improvement in digital literacy
    • % properties (block and lots) using their city domain name
    • % public transportation resources with active domain names
    • % streets with active domain names
    • # TLD registrar jobs created in city
    • # TLD registry jobs created in city
    • Registry revenue remaining in city from domain names switched to .nyc from .com, .net, etc.

I recently had a video conversation with Lowenhaupt and two of his colleagues, Joly MacFie, Vice President of the Internet Society of New York, and Robert Pollard, an environmental activist. The conversation was taped and is available to be viewed online. I gave my views on how TLDs might be managed as local digital commons.

My advice to the Occupy movement is to explore what your city’s plans are for the TLDs. Not all cities will want to venture into this process – ICANN will begin accepting applications for city TLDs in January, and the process will eventually cost $185,000 – but there could be enormous benefits from establishing such city-based spaces online. The question is, How will these spaces be used, and for whom?