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How Vancouver Team Won Control of .eco Empire

Sharing proceeds, governance with enviro community key, say social entrepreneurs.

By David Beers 9 Oct 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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Big Room's Jacob Malthouse and Trevor Bowden saw years ago how an Internet suffix could support and even transform a global environmental community.

For the past six years, two business partners laboured in their small office in Vancouver’s Chinatown, chipping away at a goal that might have seemed nothing more than a punctuation point and three letters.

The dream, for Trevor Bowden and Jacob Malthouse, was control of a new domain -- one named .eco.

On Tuesday, they grasped the prize.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the U.S.-based body that decides which Internet domain names can exist and who can administer them, gave .eco to Big Room, the company formed by Bowden and Malthouse.

If you are wondering how they won and what it means, so did I. In the clean confines of Matchstick Coffee on East Georgia, I met with the two digital entrepreneurs and got a fast lesson in why .eco represents not only a potentially endless revenue stream but a new tool for mapping who is green and who isn't.

The first thing (once we had our elaborately crafted coffees in hand) that Bowden and Malthouse made clear is that their gaining the rights to .eco really means that the global environmental community won the day.

Unlike their competitors, Big Room pledged to formally involve eco groups in deciding who will be able to use .eco in their internet addresses, and what .eco will come to signify. It was hardly a sure thing.

ICANN is in the process of letting hundreds of new domain names loose in the world, which has created a competition among various bidders to own and administer everything from .health to .gucci.

Competitors split into two types. There are lots of commercial bidders paying a hefty fee just to be able to apply for the opportunity to bid in an auction for the rights to a new domain name. Other bidders fall under the community priority heading. These groups have to meet a high bar of requirements, set and evaluated by ICANN, in order to be approved as truly representative of the community their digital suffix references. But if an applicant meets this community priority test, they leap to the front of the line.

That's the news that Bowden and Malthouse got this week. ICANN had decided their bid met the criteria for community priority and so had won the competition. There would be no auction among commercial applicants.

Big gamble

Getting to this point required a big commitment of time, money and stamina, as Bowden and Malthouse relate. Their competitors at one point included a group that included Al Gore. The entry fee alone was $185,000. So far, of some 1900 applicants for domain names about 80 have been community bids, and most of those failed.

But from the beginning, Bowden and Malthouse were only interested in winning the contest as a community priority bid. Key to their application was the plan to pour earned revenues into a .eco foundation which would provide grants to environmental causes.

Chasing their goal wasn't cheap. Backed by investors including the labour-affiliated group Working Enterprises (which, full disclosure, also invests in The Tyee), Bowden and Malthouse traveled the world seeking support from environmentally focused enterprises, activists, non-profits and even an arm of the United Nations.

Their pitch: You shouldn't be able to just pay to have .eco appended to your Internet identity. You should have to earn it. And the environmental community should be able to set the criteria and have a say in how the .eco community grows. Along the way the pair collected hundreds of endorsements for their 200-page bid.

"This is a huge win," says Bowden, "for the socially aware, socially responsible approach to investing."

Keepers of the name

So what does it mean to be masters of a domain name? Big Room will be responsible for keeping and safeguarding the .eco data base, for keeping domain names active and non-duplicated, and for verifying who deserves to be in the .eco club. To that end, the green groups they are partnered with established an organization to manage .eco’s progress in the cyberworld.

Not every green group agrees on what it means to be green, notes Jacob Malthouse. In places like Cape Town and Sao Paulo, they heard that poverty and disease is intertwined with environmental degradation. "In a lot places in India, having a bike rack outside your office means a lot less than whether you have a working sewage system," notes Bowden. That makes crafting criteria for .eco recipients more complex.

All this to and fro over one dot and three little letters. To borrow from venture capitalist lingo, what's the value proposition to having .eco as part of your digital identity? "People associate certain values with the word eco," says Bowden. "It's meaningful, and therefore it's valuable."

Adds Malthouse: "It's short. Three letters that fit well people's ingrained way of understanding who shares environmental values. And it works in Germany, in Brazil, in North America, in Japan, in France." Eco is a well understood word many places in the world.

Everyone who sees value in having their online identity associated with .eco will need to pay to register their address, and the enterprise founded by Bowden and Malthouse will set the going price and collect the revenue. But with the money comes responsibility, says Bowden: "That's why we engaged the environmental community to tell us how to make sure we don't undermine the value people associate with this term eco." He says their certification process will piggy-back on regimens already in place – the LEED certification given to builders using green construction techniques, for example.

Some names will be in extremely high demand (think, for example, "water.eco") and so part of the challenge will be making sure those are distributed with input from the environmental community.

"Our task," says Malthouse, "is to make sure dot eco doesn't become meaningless."

Once .eco takes off -- and the partners think that's a year away -- it won't be the first digital start-up to flower in Vancouver. A lot of them then move elsewhere, some to countries where tax rates are lower. But Big Room, and whatever it next becomes, he says, isn't going anywhere.

"We want to pay our taxes. We see value coming from that. We get certain benefits from operating in this environment and we are going to pay the freight, as we should."

"We'd love dot eco to be an anchor tenant in Vancouver" for a new era of socially responsible digital enterprises, Bowden says, Malthouse smiling in agreement. "The home of dot eco could have been any city in the world. It's great, we think, that it turns out to be Vancouver, which hopes to be the greenest city."  [Tyee]

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