TORONTO — A battle to control the word “kosher” in Internet addresses is pitting Jewish groups against one another to determine whether a food prepared under ancient strictures should have a new marketplace online.
The Internet’s organizing body, called Icann, is meeting this week in the South African port city of Durban to begin a major expansion of domain names. That may include a decision on who can operate and license “dot-kosher” as a suffix for Web addresses, the same way “dot-com” and “dot-net” are used.
Five organizations have banded together to oppose the sole applicant for dot-kosher, Kosher Marketing Assets, saying it seeks to profit from a sacred tradition that shouldn’t be over- commercialized. The two sides, which both are in the business of certifying food as kosher, are at odds over how Internet users will find such products in the future.
“We think that if the term ‘kosher,’ which has important meaning in the Jewish religion, is commercialized, it will do a disservice to how religion in general should be treated and will harm the kosher public specifically,” said Harvey Blitz, the Kashruth Commission chairman of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, one of the five groups. The New York- based organization oversees OU Kosher, the world’s largest certification agency.
Kosher Marketing Assets is a unit of OK Kosher Certification, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based competitor to OU Kosher. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, OK Kosher’s CEO, said he never intended to control the potential domain name unilaterally and said he was open to working with the five groups: the Orthodox Union, STAR-K Kosher Certification, Chicago Rabbinical Council, the Kashruth Council of Canada, and Kosher Supervision Service, better known as the KOF-K.
Products that are certified kosher include breakfast cereals like Rice Krispies as well as traditional Jewish food like matzo. The size of the market for food deliberately bought because it is kosher is expected to reach about $17 billion this year, according to Packaged Facts, a market-research firm.
Exclusive control of the domain name could give its owner sway over the kosher supply chain, said Larry Finkel, director of food research at Packaged Facts.
“It’s like losing access if you’re not tying into that domain,” Finkel said in an interview. “It’s sort of like being excluded from Wal-Mart.”
Icann — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — began accepting applications for generic top-level domain names, or gTLDs, in January 2012. In November, Kosher Marketing Assets, the OK Kosher unit, filed an application for dot-kosher, with a mission to “promote kosher food certification in general, and OK Certification and its clients in particular.”
While only clients who pass “rigorous certification” tests would be allowed to use the gTLD, OK Kosher said in its application it expected to have more than 600 licensees by its third year of operation. OK Kosher supervises products including Fruity Pebbles cereal and Maxwell House coffee.
Applying for a gTLD doesn’t come cheap, at close to $200,000 including the evaluation fee and legal services, OK Kosher’s Levy said in a telephone interview.
Blitz of the Orthodox Union, which provides kosher certification to items like Duncan Hines cake mixes and StarKist Tuna, said his group had no advance notice of OK Kosher’s bid and moved to block it as soon as it learned of the application. While it’s true his organization charges a fee for certification, “we got into this to make kosher food available,” not as a commercial pursuit, Blitz said.
“We were concerned by the language in the application,” which stated that a single agency would have the right to grant use of the kosher domain name, Avrom Pollak, the president of Star-K and also a rabbi, said in an interview.
A meeting between the two sides produced no agreement. OK’s Levy says he invited the groups to join his organization in overseeing the dot-kosher domain name.
“They weren’t interested,” Levy said. “They don’t have to become our partners, but they can’t now complain we’re trying to brazenly control dot-kosher.”
The dispute marks a departure from past cooperation. Individual ingredients comprising a food product, may, for example, be certified by any one of the organizations and then combined into one final product that is certified by only one.
The five groups have filed a formal objection with Icann and have also appealed to the new U.S. secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker. Both sides have hired Washington lawyers to press their cases.
Icann has begun to announce the awarding of some 1,930 proposed domain names this week, primarily non-English ones. Early gTLDs established include the word for network in Arabic, the words “web” and “online” in Cyrillic, and the Chinese characters for “game” or “games,” according to Cyrus Namazi, an Icann vice president.
Potentially key to the dot-kosher dispute is the fate of an application for the “dot-halal” domain name. Halal refers to the Muslim set of rules on food preparation and consumption.
The United Arab Emirates, India and Saudi Arabia have all registered their opposition to any one entity owning dot-halal though Icann’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which provides countries with a forum to protest domain names. The five Orthodox groups have asked Icann to use the same logic in the dot-kosher decision, while Kosher Marketing Assets argues that no country has complained about its bid.
Icann’s Namazi declined to comment on the status of halal “as a matter of policy.”
Food domain names aren’t the only proposed suffixes that have attracted the attention of national governments. Brazil and Peru persuaded Icann’s Governmental Advisory Committee this week to recommend rejecting Amazon.com Inc.’s application for “dot- amazon.” Icann must still make a final ruling on that matter.
“We look forward to working with Icann and other stakeholders to resolve these issues as the process moves forward,” Amazon.com said in a statement.
Argentina, meanwhile, successfully opposed closely held Patagonia Inc.’s bid for “dot-patagonia.” Patagonia withdrew its application, spokeswoman Jess Clayton said, and the company expects to have $130,000 of its $185,000 fee refunded.
In the kosher case, both sides say they’re still hopeful their dispute can be resolved amicably.
“We wanted this to be low-key,” Star-K’s Pollak said. “We are not interested in having this become a major battlefield.”