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It’s amazing the things some people worry about. Consider the flap caused this month by the announcement that the new .pro (for professional) Internet domain address has finally been approved.

The problem, according to media reports, is that the new name stirs up an old hornet’s nest of status envy, personal insecurity and linguistic confusion. For now, registration is available exclusively to certified lawyers, doctors and accountants. This has caused a lot of people to get very hot under the collar (perhaps they worry that life outside the .pro pale will give their hitherto respectable white collars a tinge of blue). Apparently not everyone thinks doctors, lawyers and accountants should be singled out as the only ones worthy of a “premium-brand” Net address. Objections have been voiced already: What about certified dentists, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, clerics, journalists, hairdressers, plumbers and electricians? What about “professional” athletes, dancers and entertainers, that is, people who play sports or perform for a living, not just as a hobby? Who is not a potential pro these days?

The sensible reply to such agitated questions is: Read the fine print. RegistryPro, the New York-based entity that will administer .pro, confirms that it was created to provide names initially to doctors, lawyers and accountants, but “with more professionals to come.” In other words, nobody has said that doctors, lawyers and accountants are the only professionals. It has merely been implied that they are especially clear-cut examples of professionals, holding internationally recognizable standards of certification. Moreover, there are more than 35 million of them worldwide. RegistryPro evidently thought that giving these three groups first access to .pro addresses would be a logical — and uncontroversial — first step.

Perhaps the excluded are worried that the 35 million will use up all the available .pro names. But there’s no need for concern about that, either. The new addresses are two-tier, allowing for differentiation among professional fields. Thus a doctor could register the address michaeljordan.med.pro, an accountant of the same name could register michaeljordan.cpa.pro and, should the happy day arrive when RegistryPro recognizes professional basketball players as pros, a certain sportsman could perhaps register michaeljordan.nba.pro. Nobody left out, satisfaction all round.

Or maybe not. It’s clear that, as premature as the present angst is, there is going to be quite a debate when RegistryPro actually moves to Stage 2 and starts taking applications from those eager “professionals to come.” At some point, a line does have to be drawn or the premium-brand address loses its cachet. And then things will really get murky, because in fact there is no consensus — linguistic or philosophical — about what the word “professional” means or whom it applies to.

Any good dictionary will tell you that it means many things: people in certain jobs (usually defined unhelpfully as “lawyers, doctors and other professionals”); people with particular qualifications (RegistryPro’s working criterion, but of course that begs the question of what qualifications); people who do something for pay, not just for fun; and finally, people with skill and experience.

The problem with defining eligibility for .pro is that, because these definitions don’t necessarily overlap, none of them is definitive. A Californian innkeeper, disgruntled about the .pro restrictions, put it well last week when he said he had always thought that quality of work was as important as a piece of paper in defining professionalism. “Is it a degree, or is it I’m damn good at my job?” he asked.

That’s an excellent question. In the field of journalism, to take a familiar case, the old career pathway used to be: Start straight out of college as a copy aide or cub reporter and if you were any good you could end up as the managing editor or a respected columnist. Nowadays, every self-respecting would-be reporter has a masters degree from some fancy journalism school. But does that make him or her more of a “pro” than the wise old desk editors who got their experience on the job?

The answer is obviously no, which just goes to show what a minefield RegistryPro faces as it looks ahead to Stage 2. No doubt it will simply fall back on a set of arbitrary and restrictive definitions that will please a few, leave many more chafing and resolve nothing. Of course, in the larger scheme of things, having an exclusive Internet address could hardly matter less. But the episode has been instructive, all the same, providing as it does a nice, up-to-date example of the potency of words and the everlasting frailty of human egos.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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