By DAVID W. MYERS
That the National Association of Realtors would spend more than $500,000 in the hopes of obtaining the right to create and manage a trio of new top-level domains -- .Realtor, .realestate and .homes -- might seem like a sure-fire, "no-brainer" investment.
"Realtors are already the most trusted, valued sources for real estate-related information, and we believe that the .Realtor domain would extend that trust online," NAR said last month in announcing that it had applied to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to create and manage several new alternatives to the ".com" top-level domain commonly employed by businesses today.
The 1-million-strong trade group noted that its research shows nearly nine out of 10 recent homebuyers used the Internet in their search process.
But only licensed real estate professionals who are members of NAR and who subscribe to the group's Code of Ethics have the right to call themselves a Realtor. NAR's virtual stranglehold over who can use the term Realtor has left some Internet experts with questions about how NAR would administer the .Realtor top-level domain.
"If a trade group controls the trademark, does it also mean that it can control what its members who use it can say or do on the Internet?" wonders Steve Fox, editorial director at San Francisco-based PCWorld magazine. "I can see where there might be some key First Amendment issues involved here."
Other concerns include the fee that NAR would charge brokers and agents to use .Realtor or other top-level domain names it may acquire, and what will happen if a member builds a successful website and then wants to transfer or sell it to someone else.
There's also the possibility that some NAR members will simply eschew the new top-level domain names because they're already getting plenty of business from established websites with the familiar .com extension. If .Realtor doesn't catch on, NAR could end up losing money on its foray into top-level domain name administration.
"There are certainly a lot of questions that still need to be answered," said Robert Goldberg, the NAR senior vice president who is helping to spearhead the association's efforts to create and manage the new .Realtor, .realestate and .homes top-level domains. "It will take some time to figure it all out, but I'm confident that we will."
The opportunity to create the new domain names was born seven years ago, when ICANN -- the nonprofit organization that grants and oversees the use of so-called "top-level" Internet domains -- announced that it would add an unspecified number of new domains to the ubiquitous .com, .net and .org.
Groups ranging from Wal-Mart to pornographers ponied up $185,000 for ICANN to evaluate each of their proposals, which were unveiled at a press conference last month.
(The Canadian Real Estate Association has also applied to ICANN to create and manage a new top-level domain, .MLS. CREA has the backing of the U.S.-based MLS Domains Association, a nonprofit group of 55 multiple listing services that collectively represent more than 600,000 agents and brokers, which seeks to limit use of that proposed top-level domain to MLSs.)
To make its sales pitch, NAR's wholly owned Realtors Information Network (RIN) subsidiary partnered with Cleveland-based Second Generation Ltd., spending $550,000 for the chance to get three new top-level domain names: .Realtor, .home and .realestate. If the applications are granted, NAR and its partner would incur additional costs to administer those names.
A trio of other groups bid for the .realestate domain name and 10 others asked for .home, so the trade group's chances of getting them are uncertain.
NAR's application to administer the .Realtor top-level domain name seems like a sure bet, however, because the term is already trademarked by NAR, and the group was the only one to lay claim to it with ICANN.
But it's NAR's trademark rights, and its willingness to doggedly pursue those who misuse it, that has raised the specter of future censorship by NAR if one of its members sign up to use the new .Realtor extension in emails or on a website.
"The owner of your local newspaper or TV station has total control of what it decides to publish or air, and they often reject story ideas or 'bleep' language if they think the comments would be offensive to its audience," said Greg Sokolowski, an independent website consultant who also invests in Internet startups.
"It seems to me that the Realtors, by owning its own top-level domain name, would also have the same right to edit or even shut down a .Realtor website or email account if NAR finds the content offensive to itself or someone else."
If such a prospect seems far-fetched, observers say it wouldn't be unprecedented.
Just a few months ago, NAR announced it had won a challenge it had filed with ICANN against Hammerberg & Associates, a Denver-based firm that was operating GayRealtor.com without NAR's permission.
The Colorado firm's site promised consumers "free access to gay, lesbian and gay-friendly real estate professionals" in their quest to buy or sell a home. It had successfully operated for years, but shut down shortly after an ICANN-approved mediator issued a ruling in NAR's favor.
NAR's Goldberg said the action wasn't politically motivated, and that NAR had no other choice after it was unable to reach an amicable resolution with the website's operator.
NAR's guidelines for the Internet use of its trademark and logo stipulate that the term "Realtor" may be included in a domain name only when it refers to a NAR member or the member's firm -- "JohnDoeRealtor.com," for example. NAR does not allow "Realtor" to be used in conjunction with descriptive words or phrases, such as "Number1Realtor.com."
But Jeff Hammerberg -- a real estate broker who joined NAR in 1990, and created both GayRealtor.com and GayRealEstate.com years later -- calls the trade group's efforts "a total witch hunt."
"My lawyers and I provided NAR with the names of other firms that also use 'Realtor' in their Internet names, but those companies are still around," he complains.
"I won't say that NAR is 'homophobic,' but they certainly didn't agree with what we were doing," he said. "We made countless attempts to satisfy their concerns, but finally had to shut down GayRealtor.com because they were so relentless and have such deep pockets."
Although GayRealEstate.com is still active, Web surfers who try to visit GayRealtor.com today are automatically redirected to NAR's realtor.org website.
"If they were able to force us to shut down, who are they going to go after next?" Hammerberg said.
Observers say there are other issues that NAR will have to resolve as it ramps up its marketing efforts for the new top-level domain names that it hopes to begin offering in the first half of next year.
"If you are already a successful Realtor or brokerage with an established dot-com name, switching to 'dot-realtor' might not make sense," said Web consultant Sokolowski. "If you're doing well with your Web presence already, why risk screwing it up by changing it to .Realtor and paying NAR a fee?"
If an agent does sign up for the .Realtor domain and turns his or her new website into a huge success, "Would the agent be free to later sell it for a profit, or could NAR insist on getting some of the money or block the sale altogether -- especially if the buyer isn't a member of the Realtors?," Sokolowski wondered.
The trade group is aware of such issues and is already developing answers, Goldberg said.
Members who don't already have a big Web presence might want to invest in a new .Realtor moniker to take advantage of the group's well-established, well-respected trade group, he said.
But even those with frequently visited sites might also want the new top-level domain to use as a "pointer," he said. For example, the owner of JohnSmithRealEstate.com might want to pay for the rights to also get JohnSmithRealEstate.Realtor or another name. A Web surfer who visits the latter address could automatically be redirected to the original website.
NAR is still wrestling with the issues surrounding the eventual resale of websites that employ the .Realtor top-level domain name. But Goldberg said the buyer would almost certainly need to be a member in good standing with the trade group (NAR has said it intends to make the .Realtor extension available for registration to NAR members, local and state Realtor associations, NAR-affiliated multiple listing services, affiliated institutes, societies and councils, "and other NAR-approved licensees.").
Then there is a more fundamental question: How much will NAR charge for each new .Realtor designation that is issued?
"That's still up in the air, in part because our proposal [for .Realtor] hasn't officially been approved by ICANN, and we can't be sure how many of our members will want one," Goldberg said.
NAR has said it will give free one-year subscriptions to one .Realtor domain name to the first 500,000 members who register a domain using the member's name.
"After the year is up, they could decide if they wanted to pay to renew it," Goldberg said.
Despite the questions surrounding the implementation of the proposed .Realtor domain name, Goldberg is confident that the trade group's request to administer the new top-level domain will be approved soon and that any outstanding issues will be resolved by the time it can begin offering it to members -- hopefully, he said, by the first or second quarter of 2013.
"I have no doubt that .Realtor is going to be a success," Goldberg said. "When it becomes available, you're going to see the Internet equivalent of a 'land rush' for new names that end with it."
David Myers is a real estate and business reporter based in Los Angeles.
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