.au Domain Name Reforms Spell Trouble for Businesses

The ‘.au’ says a lot about a website. It indicates that a website is local and accountable under Australian law. Accordingly, it invites the trust and business of local and international web users. Now, the .au Domain Administration (auDA), is proposing radical reforms which may undermine the legitimacy of the .au suffix and expose established websites to a heightened threat of imitation.

The Changes

Among the proposed reforms is the ability to register a ‘simplified top-level domain name’.

Rather than ending in ‘.com.au’, a top level domain name simply ends in ‘.au’. The changes do not replace the existing domain registration system, but rather they open up a new channel through which individuals can register a simplified domain name. For example, Rankin & Co. have registered ‘rankinbusinesslawyers.com’. Under the current system, we may register ‘rankinbusinesslawyers.com.au’ and, once the proposed changes are implemented, we can licence a third domain name- ‘rankinbusinesslawyers.au’.

Another significant change is the ability to use non-standard characters (non-ASCII) within a domain name, including Arabic, Cyrillic and Chinese language characters. Thus, under the proposed system, we may register a fourth domain name- rankin&co.au.

The proposed changes are not just aesthetic, auDA contemplates a ‘looser’ set of rules for determining eligibility and allocating simplified domain names. Whereas the current licensing rules require, inter alia, that registration is made in good faith and that the registrant is based in Australia, the new system may forgo the good faith condition and simply require an ‘Australian presence’. Additionally, the .au namespace will be accessible to all entities whereas, under the current system, certain names are restricted for use by particular entities; for example, a .org.au domain name is only available to non-commercial Australian organisations. The precise rules for registration are yet to be settled and auDA is inviting individuals to have their say.

The Problems

The proposed reforms, at least in their current formulation, pose a real challenge to existing websites. Most obviously, websites may be imitated by opportunistic ‘cybersquatters’. One would only have to take an existing website, gut out the ‘.com’, register it, and hold it on ransom against the established website.

It is unclear whether businesses with an existing domain name will be automatically entitled to license the simplified domain name for the same address. Recent discussions suggest that websites registered after 2016 will not be granted automatic use of the .au domain. Frustratingly, auDA has not provided for a fair system of dispute resolution in the event of website imitation.

What is most clear is that existing businesses will have to pay additional fees in order to register a simplified domain name which, judging by current registration fees, may range between $99 – 127 for a two year licence (although we are hopeful that concessions will be applied to the simplified domain name).

The second and often overlooked risk of the reforms is that the looser registration rules may undermine public confidence in the .au domain namespace. The auDA review panel have not explained in any real detail or persuasive logic why the reforms are needed. Nor is it clear how these reforms will benefit Australian businesses- that is, aside from the business of domain registration which is the true beneficiary of these reforms.

Combatting Cybersquatters; Register a Trademark

The threat of cybersquatting is ameliorated with a registered trademark. The act of registering a domain name does not provide the registrant with the proprietary rights to that name. It merely gives the registrant a licence to use the name for a specified period (usually two years) and that licence can be revoked at any time. In order to claim ownership of domain name, the registrant must have it trademarked.

We will keep our readership notified of updates to the domain namespace. Click here to view the auDA discussion paper on the proposed changes.

The article is intended for general interest purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. For tailored advice contact Rankin & Co.

2018-02-21T05:26:15+00:00February 21st, 2018|Business Advice, Trademarks|3,421 Comments