December 10, 2018

Domain name .kosher gets closer

Earlier this month, the world got one step closer to the day when Web sites can end not just with .com, .net or .org — but with the suffix .kosher as well.

After a fierce and expensive dispute that pitted one major kosher certification company against five of its biggest rivals, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, delegated control over .kosher to OK Kosher Certification, a Brooklyn-based kosher certification agency.

ICANN began accepting applications for new “generic top-level domain names” (gTLD) like .kosher in 2012; as of Jan. 21, the independent international organization had given the go-ahead to 100 such strings of letters, including .health, .luxury and even .xyz.

But none of those drew the kind of objection that was raised after OK Kosher, which certifies more than 500,000 products and offices around the world, applied in November 2012 to manage the .kosher gTLD. Its five biggest competitors — the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU Kosher), STAR-K Kosher Certification Inc. (STAR-K), Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc), Kosher Supervision Service Inc. (KOF-K) and the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR) — together filed a formal complaint with ICANN in March 2013, expressing concern that OK Kosher might use its control over the .kosher string to attain an unfair competitive advantage in the market for kosher certification services.

On Jan. 14, an expert working for the International Chamber of Commerce rebuffed this objection and awarded the right to manage .kosher to a subsidiary of OK Kosher called Kosher Marketing Assets, LLC, concluding that there was no proof that it would have a negative impact.

Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, OK’s head of public relations, said it’s too early to know what the company plans to do with the new gTLD. “We do know that we want to keep it in line with the OK’s mission, kosher without compromise,” he said. “We want to have it in the spirit of inclusivity and have it open to other people who adhere to the Torah standards of kosher.”

However, Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of OU Kosher, made clear in an interview with the Journal on Jan. 23 that he still had doubts about how OK Kosher would use the newly delegated gTLD.

“We don’t believe that any one group should have control over the word ‘kosher,’ Elefant said. If one kosher certifying agency has control over which businesses could obtain Web addresses ending in .kosher, he said, any business that wanted to have such a presence on the Web would be forced to sign up with OK Kosher.

There’s a long history of intense rivalry — but also cooperation — between kosher certifiers in the United States. Today, a consumer food product may have only one kosher symbol on its package, but it’s likely that its ingredients are certified by different agencies. 

That balance between competition and cooperation is a delicate one, and this dispute could push that system in one way or another, according to Timothy Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School whose book “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrialized Food” was published last year. Gaining control over .kosher could give OK Kosher increased Internet traffic, he said.

“If that could be translated into greater market control or greater control over public understanding of kosher standards, that might push [the American system of kosher certification] in the direction of centralized control,” he said. 

To illustrate just how high each side believed the stakes were in this fight, one need only look at the sums spent. The typical application fee for a single gTLD is $185,000, not including legal fees involved in preparing the application; every year, the manager of a gTLD must also pay a $25,000 renewal fee to ICANN to maintain control.

Meanwhile, the five competing agencies that joined in objecting to OK Kosher’s application collectively spent around $100,000 on fees to ICANN and their lawyers, according to Elefant. The group could spend more money if they choose to appeal the decision.

Elefant said that when news of OK’s application to take control of .kosher reached him at the OU in late 2012, it was a surprise.

“We were never informed by OK of their application,” he said. “We happened to find out — and religious Jews don’t like to use this word — coincidentally.”

Before they took their objection to ICANN, though, the OU, together with the four other agencies, approached OK Kosher. A meeting was held in January 2013 to see if some kind of mutually acceptable agreement could be reached.

But if the OU’s preference was for no agency to own the gTLD .kosher, OK Kosher took a different attitude. Fogelman said the .kosher gTLD has “enormous potential to spread kosher and educate about kosher.” Furthermore, Fogelman believes there is a danger to leaving the .kosher gTLD on the table.

“Allowing it to be directed by people who are either not qualified or have ulterior motives for managing .kosher has the potential for great disaster,” he said.

From a purely business standpoint, it’s unclear if any of the gTLDs will turn out to be good investments. Andrew Allemann, editor of the Web-based trade publication Domain Name Wire, estimated it could take five years to find out whether the significant investments made in gTLDs were worthwhile.

Fogelman suggested that even if OK Kosher never turns a profit through .kosher, laying claim to the gTLD was the right thing to do.

 “From a business perspective, it might not be great to have a $25,000 bill from ICANN for something that doesn’t turn out to be a moneymaker,” he said. “On the other hand, this is something that has to be managed responsibly. It is something we have to protect.”