Can dotHIV Turn ICANN’s Domain Name Boondoggle Into an Opportunity to Do Good? 

A screen shows a rolling feed of new generic top-level domain names that have been applied for during a press conference hosted by ICANN in central London, on June 13, 2012. 

Photo by Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

You are creating a business, like derivatives on Wall Street, that has no value,” Esther Dyson, the founding chairwoman of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, once said about ICANN’s project to create hundreds of new generic top level domains, known as gTLDs.

Aside from the opportunity to use non-Latin alphabets, the new gTLDs are a solution in search of a problem, a multi-million-dollar boondoggle, generating income of more than $300 million in ICANN application fees alone. (Paradoxically, this may result in only minimal net revenue for the corporation.)

That sum does not include the operating costs of the hundreds of applicants seeking to become the registry for a given gTLD (registries “own” top level domains under contract with ICANN and in turn contract with registrars such as Gandi.net or GoDaddy, which sell domain names using the TLD to individuals, businesses, nonprofits, etc.), nor the ongoing costs to brand owners, who are already seeing the negative consequences they feared at the launch of the program.

These new gTLDs offer real risks to the LGBTQ community. I have written here and here about the travails of dotgay LLC in its attempts to secure the .gay gTLD.  After granting a commercial operator the rights to .lgbt, ICANN will soon decide whether dotgay LLC’s community priority application will succeed for .gay, or whether the string will be awarded to the highest bidder for purely commercial operation. If the latter comes to pass, both .gay and .lgbt, the two names under consideration of the greatest interest to the LGBTQ community, will be operated solely to benefit commercial interests, with no protection against possible abuse of these names, no community involvement, and no funds returning to the community.

But there is a third gTLD that also concerns many in the LGBTQ community: .hiv. It has enjoyed a much better fate than .gay and offers some good from the ill wind ICANN has been blowing on the web.

The new .hiv domain name was successfully proposed by dotHIV, a Berlin-based nonprofit corporation that signed a registration contract with ICANN in late March, with a first batch of “sunrise” domain launches to begin later this month, and .hiv opening to all applicants in August.

The project was inspired by a pro bono campaign against HIV/AIDS by German ad agency thjnk, which coincided with the launch of ICANN’s new gTLD project. The opportunity for a new gTLD led thjnk’s co-owner Michael Trautmann to consider how a .hiv gTLD could become a “red ribbon for the digital age” to mobilize billions of Internet users around the world.

The new nonprofit he formed, dotHIV gemeinnütziger e.V., was the only applicant for the .hiv string. This is surprising, because there is big money in the field of HIV/AIDS research, prevention, and treatment. Obvious clients for .hiv can be found in the pharmaceutical industry. GBI Research found that HIV/AIDS therapeutics in the top seven world markets was valued at $13.5 billion in 2011, with an estimated value of $21.8 billion by 2018.

The market in other countries, particularly in the developing world, is also huge. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria secured $16 billion in funding for AIDS alone as of 2013.*

The industry leaders in the field are likely to seek visibility on this new domain, both directly (for example, gilead.hiv—note that all domain names given are hypothetical examples only) and for generic names such as treatment.hiv or testing.hiv.

Yet more corporate clients are expected from firms in other sectors seeking to highlight their support for HIV/AIDS causes. A surprising number of corporations have such programs. Many of these concern their African operations, for example, Mercedes Benz South Africa.

As a “red ribbon for the digital age,” .hiv would provide a symbolic presence but would not actually do much to promote progress in the field of HIV/AIDS research, prevention, and treatment. What takes dotHIV further is that it transforms its role as a domain registry into a social enterprise by converting clicks on .hiv websites into donations to real-world HIV/AIDS programs.

While many nonprofits using .hiv will probably use the domain as their main website, most purchasers of .hiv domains will simply redirect their .hiv address to their standard address (for example, google.hiv would redirect to google.com). But before doing so, the visit will be counted, and a micro-donation of approximately one-tenth of a cent will be made from dotHIV’s general fund to a target project fund. This will allow users of .hiv domains to track and to compare the effectiveness of their use of the domain.

The funds released when .hiv websites are visited will come from the sale of .hiv domains (nonprofit organizations in the field of HIV/AIDS will receive free domain names). At 150 euros (more than $200), the annual fee for a .hiv domain is not cheap compared with .com registrations, which can start as low as a few dollars a year. This income will fund the operations of dotHIV and cover the debt incurred during the application and launch phases of the organization, including reimbursements of the zero- or low-interest loans provided by business angels and the technology development fund of the city-state of Berlin that have allowed the charity to operate so far.

To get an idea of the sums involved, founder Michael Trautmann announced earlier this year that 10,000 requests for a .hiv name have been made. If all were paying customers, as opposed to the nonprofits that will receive free domains, that would mean $2 million in annual financing for dotHIV.

The intent is that at least 70 percent of these fees will go to the funding pool for HIV/AIDS projects. For the launch of .hiv, four projects have been identified, with a focus on access to treatment. The projects are located in Rwanda, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. The first to receive funds will be We-ActsX for Hope in Rwanda. In the future, users of .hiv domains will vote on which vetted projects to fund, making the domains a real community devoted to fighting HIV/AIDS.

The first .hiv domain to be launched during the sunrise period is expected to be red.hiv for Bono’s (RED) organization, which offers an interesting comparison with dotHIV in terms of consumer activism. (RED) and dotHIV share the goal of transforming the regular behavior of consumers into a form of activism, dotHIV making regular web use into a tool for visibility and funding, and (RED) converting standard product and service purchases into donations from brand owners.

(RED) has been criticized on a number of grounds, but the biggies seem to be that it reinforces consumerism rather than attacking the underlying causes of poverty and disease; that it provides much more benefits in terms of PR for participating brands than they, in turn, provide to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and that the Global Fund itself is not a great vehicle for fighting HIV/AIDS (although the Global Fund appears to have overcome its “corruption crisis” and regained the confidence of Western donor nations).

For consumers, buying a (RED) product is a painless way of making a donation, since there is ostensibly no price premium—it is the brand owner that is making a donation. Starbucks, for example, now donates 10 cents for each coffee sold on World AIDS Day; until 2011, it gave 5 cents for each purchase using a (Starbucks) RED card, and it claims to have donated more than $11 million to the Global Fund.

Even better (in terms of a business model): When you buy a (RED) product, you become a conspicuously concerned consumer. Those red Beats by Dr. Dre headphones say to one and all that you’re not just hip, you’re doing something about HIV/AIDS.

Reaching the coffee chain’s website by using starbucks.hiv does not provide quite the same visibility for consumers as (RED) products, since it lacks the public broadcasting tote-bag effect. But dotHIV does offer real benefits in terms of action. The money is already in the bank, thanks to the sale of .hiv domains. The projects benefiting from the funding are small in scale and are clearly indicated on the dotHIV website. As operations continue, the outcomes of these specific projects will become clearer than those offered by the bulk funding of the Global Fund. Companies can use their .hiv domain as a landing page to provide further information. And nonprofits will benefit from a free domain name to showcase their actions in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Because funds are released only when .hiv websites are visited, all website owners have an incentive to promote their .hiv domain names, enhancing the “red ribbon” effect.

In some respects, dotHIV hearkens back to a site like Freerice.com, an ad-supported website that allows visitors to play games to donate “grains of rice” to the poor and that now belongs to the U.N. World Food Program. Of course, Freerice.com, dotHIV, and (RED) can all be slammed as forms of slacktivism. It’s true that visiting google.hiv rather than going directly to google.com requires little commitment from Internet users. But if it leads to a few more people getting tested, or a few more dollars being sent to field projects promoting access to treatment, the millions spent on ICANN’s gTLD boondoggle will at least have led to some good.

Correction, July 9, 2014: This post originally indicated the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria’s cumulative funding for AIDS as of 2013 as being the funding for the single year 2013.