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Master of your domain

net.wars: Master of your domain
The IANA is not responsible for deciding what is and what is not a country, wrote Jon Postel in 1994, in the Request for Comments document (RFC 1591) explaining the structure of the domain name system. At the time, the domain name system consisted of seven "generic" top-level domains (gTLDs: .edu, .com, .net, .org, .gov, .mil, and .int), plus the set of two-letter country codes, which Postel took from the ISO-3166 list. "It is extremely unlikely that any other TLDs will be created."

As Buffy said when she aimed the rocket launcher at the Judge, "That was then."

In late June the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers announced its program to create new gTLDs, in the process entirely redefining the meaning of "generic", which used to mean a category type. What ICANN is really proposing are big-brand TLDs - because with an application fee of $185,000 and an annual subscription of $25,000 who else can afford one? In Internet terms, the new system will effectively give any company that signs up for one of these things - imagine .ibm, .disney, or .murdochsempire - the status of a country. Given recent reports that Apple has more cash on hand than the US government, that may merely reflect reality. But still.

Postel was writing in the year that the Internet was opened to commercial traffic. By 1995, with domain name registrations flooding into .com and trademark collisions becoming commonplace, discussions began about how to expand the namespace. These discussions eventually culminated in ICANN's creation.

A key element of the competing proposals of the mid-1990s was to professionalize the way the DNS was managed. Everyone trusted Postel, who had managed the DNS since its creation in 1983, but an international platform of the scope the Internet was attaining clearly could not be a one-man band, no matter how trustworthy. And it had become obvious that there was money in selling domain name registrations: formerly a free service, in 1995 registering in .com cost $50. ICANN's creation opened the way to create competing registrars under the control of each top-level domain's registry. As intended, prices dropped.

The other key element was the creation of new gTLDs. Between 2001 and 2003, ICANN introduced 13 hew gTLDs. And I will bet that, like me, you will never have seen most of them in the wild. Because: everyone still wants to be in .com.

Proposal for creating new gTLDs always attract criticism, and usually on the same grounds: the names are confusing, overlapping, and poorly chosen, and do not reflect any clear idea about what the DNS is *for*. "What is the problem we are trying to solve?" Donna Hoffman, an early expert on the commercialization of the Internet asked me in 1997 when I was first writing about the DNS debates. No one has ever proposed a cogent answer. Is the DNS a directory (the phone book's white pages), a system of categories (the yellow pages), a catalogue, or a set of keywords? This is not just a matter of abstruse philosophy, because how that question is answered helps determine the power balance between big operators and the "little guys" Internet pioneers hoped to empower.

You can see this concern in the arguments Esther Dyson makes at Slate opposing the program. But even the commercial interests this proposal is supposed to serve aren't happy. If you're Coca-Cola, can you afford to risk someone else's buying up your trademarked brand names? How many of them do you have to register to feel safe? Coca-Cola, for example, has at least half a dozen variants of its name that all converge on its main Web site: Coca-Cola with and without the hyphen, under .com and .biz, and also coke.com. Many other large companies have done the same kind of preemptive registrations. It may assist consumers who type URLs into their browsers' address bars (a shrinking percentage of Internet users), but otherwise the only benefits of this are financial and accrue to the registries, registrars, and ICANN itself.

All of that is why Dyson calls the new program a protection racket: companies will feel compelled to apply for their own namespaces in order to protect their brands. For it, they will gain nothing: neither new customers nor innovative technologies. But the financial gains to ICANN are substantial. Its draft budget for 2011-2012 (PDF) shows that the organization expects the new gTLD program to add more than $18 million to its bottom line if it goes ahead.

As net.wars has pointed out for some years now the DNS matters less than once it did. Without the user-friendly layer of the DNS email and the Web would never have taken off the way they did. But later technologies such as instant messaging, mobile networks, and many social networks do not require it once you've set up your account (although you use the DNS to find the Web site where you sign up in the first place). And, increasingly, as ReadWriteWeb noted in 2008, users automatically fire up a search engine rather than remember a URL and type it into the address bar. ICANN's competition is...Google. No wonder they need money,

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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