Will Greener Domain Names Lead to a More Sustainable Internet?

Green TLDsWe are on the verge of a new dimension to the virtual land grab of the net as the powers that be clear the way to receive applications for new Top Level Domains (TLDs) that will stake out fresh territory for how people can lay claim to cyberspace. While new websites now have choices such as “.com”, “.tv” or “.info”, we are only a short time away from the opportunity to have anything you want at the end of your web address. Two of the most anticipated in the bunch are “.eco” and “.green”, both seen as new umbrellas for the image of sustainability to get a more meaningful foothold in the digital ether. Will these new domain names be the start of a more ecologically conscious sea of web surfers and end up greening the web itself or are they merely just another way to slap a green label on a product?

The vast depths of digital space that is the internet is managed by a single, non-profit entity known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Originally created under the direction of the United States Department of Commerce, ICANN now operates as an independent, highly influential organization that manages the registration and acquisition of internet space. Since the year 2000 there have only been two times when ICANN has expanded generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) from the net’s native origins of “.com” (which still accounts for 46% of the world’s 202 million web addresses).  Now the stage has been set for the realm of the free market to guide the new image of being online starting in 2012.

The Players for TLDs

Companies like Dot-Eco are hoping to secure the rights to oversee and distribute TLDs to an environmentally conscious public and are approaching the terrain with a series of standards for how new sites will come to be and what conditions will exist to ensure sustainability’s integrity through these namesakes. If the company succeeds in acquiring the right to manage the registry of “.eco” it will become the gatekeeper, deciding which sites will go to which people and how much it will cost (within the parameters of ICANN regulations).

Funded by Big Room Inc., Dot-Eco appears to be the front runner for securing its respective TLD and has made no effort to hide its dedication to sustainable efforts through its policy for intended operation. Applicants for new domain names will be required to answer a series of questions pertaining to the background of their organization to present a case for acquiring the address and these questions will be renewed every two years. The company also plans to have all profits from the sales of new domains be given to a foundation charged with using the capital to “support social and environmental entrepreneurship, particularly in developing countries, including the development of social and environmental standards that promote and recognize their efforts.”

The Dot Green Registry Corporation tells a similar story. After achieving the reign over the world of “.green” the company plans to “Grow and promote the global green movement, help citizens and encourage businesses to find their paths to sustainability, raise awareness and support for the green movement and donate to non-profit organizations and projects aimed at sustainability in ALL regions of the world.”

Changing The Game

Even between only these two companies the demand for their respective chunks of cyberspace could be immense. While either one could receive the nod of approval from the sustainability-oriented populace, there will probably be tens of thousands of entities that will be covering their bases either way. As the number of companies with sustainability goals rises, why would they not want a chance to secure an internet presence ratified by eco-conscious registries? CocaCola.green, BestBuy.eco, Ecoimagination.green; these could all be new badges of stewardship that companies can tout and no matter how much the registries charge it will likely be a pittance for what corporate America can afford.

The result is that these registry entities could wind up with large stores of cash in a hurry. With tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of new addresses, the registry fees could create a sound foundation for green investing. Both registry companies remain decidedly vague on how these funds will be utilized, but one has to wonder if they could be keyed up to actually make the internet itself greener—and it needs some work.

Not long ago I wrote about Internet Waste: The Material Side of Digital to try and highlight the real effects of an expanding digital world. A recent report by Greenpeace drew aim on the internet and the facilities needed to support it. Titled “How Dirty is Your Data?” the publication paints a questionable picture on the IT infrastructure and the imminent changes that will come with a new generation of the internet “cloud”. It struck on a similar point: “In our technologically interconnected world, data centers are the factories of the 21st century.”

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Source: “How Dirty Is Your Data” by Greenpeace

According to the report, data centers (the physical presence of the internet’s data) already consume more than 3% of U.S. electricity and 1.5%-2% of the world’s, growing at a rate of 12% per year. So how much power is that? Well if we took all of the world’s data centers and telecommunications network to run the internet in 2007 and pooled their demand together into a country it would reach 623 billion kwh and would be the fifth largest energy consumer in the world after the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

Yes, new sustainable gTLDs are helping to promote awareness and knowledge surrounding sustainability, but in a way they are also contributing to a new source of consumption by creating more sites and the need for more data to be stored. Maybe the best way that these companies can address the environmental footprint of the world would be to take an introspective look at the products of their own existence and focus on making our digital universe more sustainable.

Greenpeace goes on to suggest that targeting renewable energy is the way to lower the overall carbon costs by displacing the coal power than many U.S. data centers rely on, but I think the consumption end of energy is just as valid as the production side. More efficient data centers, a better smart grid, more efficient data transmission and advanced battery technology for a growing army of mobile devices could all have material affects on lowering the energy that the internet consumes. More data centers should be located closer to cities, not farther away, where the excess heat they produce can be utilized.

While devoting effort and funding to far-off problems is admirable, a great deal of our problems when it comes to sustainability is a lack of onus to clean up our own mess before moving on to help others do the same. The internet itself represents one of the largest and most swiftly growing black holes of energy on the planet and those contributing to its expansion—even those with the best of intentions—should zero in their contributions to limiting, mitigating and offsetting their own actions first.

Image Credit: hippyshopper.com ,