July 22, 2024

Solum's Response on .mobile

Larry Solum, at Legal Theory Blog, responds to my .mobile post from yesterday. He also points to a recently published paper he co-authored with Karl Mannheim. The paper looks really interesting.

Solum’s argument is essentially that creating .mobile would be an experiment, and that the experiment won’t hurt anybody. If nobody adopts .mobile, the experiment will have no effect at all. And if some people like .mobile and some don’t, those who like it will benefit and the others won’t be harmed. So why not try the experiment? (Karl-Friedrich Lenz made a similar comment.)

The Mannheim/Solum paper argues that ICANN should let a thousand gTLDs bloom, and should use auctions to allocate the new gTLDs. (gTLDs are Generic Top-Level Domains such as .com, .org, or .union) The paper argues persuasively for this policy.

If ICANN were following the Mannheim/Solum policy, or some approximation to it, I would agree with Solum’s argument and would be happy to see the .mobile experiment proceed. (But I would still bet on its failure.) No evidence for its viability would be needed, beyond the sponsors’ willingness to outbid others for the rights to that gTLD.

But today’s ICANN policy is to authorize very few gTLDs, and to allocate them administratively. In the context of today’s policy, and knowing that the creation of one new gTLD will be used to argue against the creation of others, I think a strong case needs to be made for any new gTLD. The proponents of .mobile have not made such a case. Certainly, they have not offered a convincing argument that theirs is the best way to allocate a new gTLD, or even that their is the best way to allocate the name .mobile.

Why We Don't Need .mobile

A group of companies is proposing the creation of a new Internet top level domain called “.mobile”, with rules that require sites in .mobile to be optimized for viewing on small-display devices like mobile phones.

This seems like a bad idea. A better approach is to let website authors create mobile-specific versions of their sites, but serve out those versions from ordinary .com addresses. A mobile version of weather.com, for example, would be served out from the weather.com address. The protocol used to fetch webpages, HTTP, already tells the server what kind of device the content will be displayed on, so the server could easily send different versions of a page to different devices. This lets every site have a single URL, rather than having to promote separate URLs for separate purposes; and it lets any page link to any other page with a single hyperlink, rather than an awkward “click here on mobile phones, or here on other devices” construction.

The .mobile proposal looks like a textbook example of Lessig’s point about how changing the architecture of the net can increase its regulability. .mobile would be a regulated space, in the sense that somebody would make rules controlling how sites in .mobile work. And this, I suspect, is the real purpose of .mobile – to give one group control over how mobile web technology develops. We’re better off without that control, letting the technology develop on its own over in the less regulated .com.

We already have a regulated subdomain, .kids.us, and that hasn’t worked out too well. Sites in .kids.us have to obey certain rules to keep them child-safe; but hardly any sites have joined .kids.us. Instead, child-safe sites have developed in .com and .org, and parents who want to limit what their kids see on the net just limit their kids to those sites.

If implemented, .mobile will probably suffer the same fate. Sites will choose not to pay extra for the privilege of being regulated. Instead, they’ll stay in .com and focus on improving their product.