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Oct02 – meet the digital red ribbon

Thursday, 02 October 2014 Written by // Michael Bouldin Categories // Social Media, Fundraisers, Current Affairs, Launches, Living with HIV, Michael Bouldin

Michael Bouldin on what's behind the new kid on the block, dothiv, a domain name that donates money to AIDS charities with every click you make – meet the digital red ribbon

I don’t normally mix my business/activism/whatever interests with my writing proclivities; it’s unfair to my publisher, and Bob Leahy’s angelic patience is better tried with some smut-depravity first-person account of the flavor I hope and pray my mom, dad, husband, evil mother-in-law will never read. Writing about work is an unseemly practice in my book at least. Buy an ad already, people. 

But as they say, no rule without exceptions. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet my not-boss, Carolin Silbernagl of Berlin, Germany, an extraordinary woman I am proud, rather honored even, to call my friend. She’s that rare human being that spreads happiness and excitement without even trying, a bubbling fountain of enthusiasm and yeah-we-can-do-that. She’s in the HIV sphere for the best of reasons: to help. 

Carolin is CEO and a co-founder of dotHIV, a German non-profit tasked by ICANN (one of the governing bodies of the internet) to do one simple thing: harness the staggering size and growth of the global web to the global fight against HIV/AIDS. Our tool is .hiv, what we’re calling the digital red ribbon. The short version of the story is that it works like .com or .net, but unlike them (or any other web suffix), this dot exists solely for philanthropy. 

There is no precedent, no roadmap; quite the contrary, the work we’re doing is expressly intended as a template for any future iteration of such an effort. Heady stuff, and all because of a piece of very low-key and somewhat awkward bad news: the internet is running out of unique names. 

Bear with me if you would, because the story is about to get technical. 

Does ring a bell, young Jedi? Not really, right? 

Pity; that’s The New York Times. A more than decent newspaper, but odds are, nobody in their right mind is going to remember to go read it. Nor would the NYT marketing department presumably be all that happy if were their primary online branding opportunity. 

Rather more intuitive is typing instead. That’s not just a random string of letters, it’s a web address or URL – ‘Uniform Resource Locator’ – unique in the world. Type it in anywhere on this planet, no matter, you’ll always wind up at the Times. 

Pretty amazing in my book, but as ever, there’s a fly in the ointment; that awkward name shortage I mentioned. Can’t have them run out, except, well, they already did. In 2011. 

There are roughly three billion web users worldwide. They access over a billion web domains, two hundred and fifty billion sites, using several billion wired devices, each with a unique number – an IP address – assigned to them. The internet addressing protocol in use today – IPv4 – is limited and mathematically only makes about four billion unique IPs  possible. As noted, they’ve run out. 

To give one example, the total number of .com sites alone is over a hundred million globally [.pdf]. All this is virtual, trillions of electrons flowing around the planet, but rendered as a graphic looks something like this. 

A spaghetti orgasm at first glance, sure, except it’s not; the internet is the largest (and most complex) ordered system ever built by human hands. 

You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the fight against HIV. Truth be told, that was my question as well one cold morning in March 2013 when Carolin pitched .hiv to me over a nice breakfast at Café Pastis (incidentally one of the few places left in the Meatpacking District you might still be able to frequent without selling your firstborn into bondage, but I digress). 

Long story short: could I be in Berlin – Berlin, Germany, not New Hampshire, thank you – the week after for a weeklong workshop to brainstorm global governance for this interesting project? All expenses paid (and with senior staff from Google, Twitter and a few others)? 

Hmm, lemme think, yeah. 

Take a closer look at the component parts of a URL. Bear in mind that no element in it is random.

A URL has three distinct parts: the first, http://www, to simplify somewhat, tells you’re on the world wide web. 

The second, in this case example, is called the name space; that’s the part unique to any site and actually a string of numbers in a format like this: 

The last element, here .hiv, is the domain space or top level domain, TLD for short. 

That TLD is dotHIV’s product for an enormous global market with an annual volume in the billions of dollars (given that no site is or can be online without a unique web address). 

An example of what this market looks like in practice: the largest vendor in the space overall is Network Solutions LLC, Nasdaq NSOL, with annual revenue of a bit over $140 million. Imagine just a fraction of that going to HIV education and advocacy. And no, you don’t need a new site for the purpose; a simple redirect, done. Seems pointless, except for one salient fact: every click on a .hiv site, original or mirror, triggers a micro-donation. And raises awareness, plants a flag in a global space used by three billion people. 

This is not fundraising, not a government grant or a handout from cold charity; it’s earned income. Corporations get value, the HIV community, a new revenue stream. Funds that legally can only be spent on HIV-related efforts. That’s a power shift, not even a subtle one when you consider just how attractive that pile of money could be to, say, the Human Rights Campaign. 

Think that might possibly shift the agenda just a tiny bit? I do. That old adage “Money Talks”, let’s test it, see if it’s true. Even if it’s not – which I doubt – having seen our grant applications, there are amazing ideas out there, ideas nobody else will fund but that deserve a chance. 

We’re priced at a cool €150, that’s about 200 USD per unique name and year. Money that usually winds up in corporate coffers such as those of NSOL mentioned above. A nice chunk of change for a single individual, true enough, which is why our target sales market is corporate philanthropy, and eligible HIV-related charities pay nada, nothing, niente, rien. Where does that money go again? 

Under our (legally binding) charter granted by ICANN, it goes to eligible charities. 

Virtually all the TLDs we’ve heard about so far have been related to marketing and business, but Carolin explains that these are also important elements of a philanthropic TLD such as dotHIV. HIV is the second biggest individual cause for corporate philanthropy worldwide. Companies engage in corporate philanthropy because their customers expect them to give something back to society, so the idea of a TLD can be a particularly useful way to unite corporate donation and public advocacy in the service of a good cause. 

dotHIV will donate funds from the annual registration fees of domain names sold to corporate entities. Priced at €150 per annum wholesale, they’ve committed that at least €125 from each domain will be donated annually. But they don’t just hand over the money in one go. Carolin explains that a micro-donation is triggered each time a user clicks on a link to brand’s .hiv domain name. This is essential, she says, to maintain the publicity for the campaign (and the brands which support it) and to ensure user engagement for its continued success, as well for advocacy and education purposes. 

“Our promise to the internet user is that every click on a dotHIV domain name triggers a small donation from the pool of registration fee income… This unites website users and website owners in a joint cooperation to donate money to HIV, and to promote the cause … Without the users role, the donation would simply happen behind closed doors and nobody would realise it. The publicity is as important as the funds, if the campaign is to be sustained” 

At this writing, the first sites are already going up, and our first funding round is behind us. That’s actually my job (along with a panel of other experts, some of the top people on the planet, all of us pro bono), to allocate funding. You have no idea what amazing concepts have come across my desk; humbling might be a better word. 

And we’re just getting started. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a whole new ballgame. Damn right we can change the world. Welcome aboard.

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