The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.
Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu. They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries. Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities. If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it. Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london.
New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of Connectingnyc.org – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”
Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable:
The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways. Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use museums.nyc and find everything laid out more intelligently. Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to brooklynheights.nyc and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials. And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city was going to let a private vendor sell off the domain names with minimal city oversight. Anyone could buy up “restaurants.nyc” and any hotel chain could buy “hotels.nyc.” These would amount to privately made, market-driven choices about the future of New York City. They amount to urban planning decisions. Unfortunately, the implications of the Bloomberg plan has received scant attention. However, the final contract between the City and ICANN for .nyc TLDs has not yet been consummated, so the De Blasio administration could plausibly step in and take correction action.
It should. The current plan is crazy and short-sighted. Infrastructure should be used to serve the needs of everyone, not just the highest bidder. And TLDs are surely a form of civic infrastructure that belongs to all of us.
As Tom Lowenhaupt recently noted, if the current plans for .nyc go through, “we’ll not have a guiding framework like the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 which mapped Manhattan’s street grid. Instead of a thoughtfully organized digital grid, .nyc will bring a chaotic mean-streets, a digital reincarnation of the 1980’s Times Square.” This is the logical result of the Bloomberg administration’s choice to let the management contract for the .nyc TLD to a vendor who wrote the RFP [request for proposal]. Imagine if city planners had surrendered the grid-layout of Manhattan streets to road-builders or General Motors.
Monetizing the TLDs by selling them to the highest bidders achieves little of lasting value. It simply surrenders equity control (forever) of a key piece of city infrastructure and planning authority to private parties. This has sweeping global ramifications. Why should the City willingly give up its priceless .nyc TLD to some philistine investor, possibly a non-New Yorker, whose only goal will be to host a motley strip mall of .nyc domain-names and milk their leasees for all they're worth? Why not use this infrastructure more creatively and deliberatively to advance the larger, collective interests of New Yorkers?
It is unclear if Mayor De Blasio cares enough about this issue (or understands its implications sufficiently) to intervene. Does he understand how this seemingly arcane technical matter will have enormous, far-reaching implications for the future of the city? Does he and his staff appreciate how the .nyc TLD could be a rich tool for empowering the City’s 352 neighborhoods and helping people around the world to interact more intelligbly with the City’s people and resources? (For the latest official thinking on the .nyc TLDs, here’s an account of the October 17 advisory committee meeting on the .nyc TLD.)
A commenter on Lowenhaupt’s blog, Eric Brunner-Williams, notes that New York City is a global city, a premier cultural venue and a thought leader. It should act accordingly. It should not simply outsource control over this vital city planning resource (the TLD) with little thought to the larger public and long-term implications. There is too much at stake for the “little people” and non-commercial interests who have been marginalized for the past twelve years.
Fortunately, according to Brunner-Williams, the administrative plans for the .nyc TLD can be “easily redressed within the existing contract and/or reasonably redressed within a competitive rebid process to a much larger universe of capable contractors, and improved substantively by sources of informed and interested policy advisory offerings to the implementing agency.”
Mayor-Elect De Blasio, you’ve invited the people to make suggestions for your new administration. You've made the beautiful point that "we all rise together." Here’s an issue that will directly affect our ability to do that. How you choose to deploy the .nyc TLD will have far-reaching implications for many generations of New Yorkers.