What's In a (Domain) Name?

Internet addresses have become so commonplace that we even have jokes about them. One goofy item I recently received said, "If you want to sound cool, just add 'dot com' after everything you say, like this, dot com."As with most everything else about the Net, that joke is going to date quickly. While the "com" set of addresses is the center of commercial Internet activity today, it may not be for long. Though the computers of the Internet all identify one another by number, a system of more readable "domain names" was established in 1984 to make Net navigation easier for humans. Back then nobody had any idea how big the Net was going to get. Today, reasonable-sounding domain names are running out, at least in the "com" domain, where you can almost tell an address's age by its length. Almost all concise names like "acme.com" have been claimed. In their wake we get attempts at uniqueness like "youwillmakelotsofmoney.com" and "bobswickedcoolwebsite.com."The shortage has been seized upon as a business opportunity by a wave of domain name speculators, who buy up "good" names and sell them off to the highest bidder. (The related extortionist strategy of registering unclaimed corporate names, then selling them to their proper owners at exorbitant prices, disappeared when it was established that trademark law applies to domain names.)There are other top-level domains besides "com," of course. The others are "edu" for educational institutions, "net" for providers of network access, "mil" for the (US) military, "org" for non-governmental organizations, and "gov" for (US) government sites. In addition, there are hundreds of two-letter country domains: "ca" for Canada, "jp" for Japan, and so on. But for businesses, especially American businesses, nothing today seems to have the cachet of "com."To help remedy this, the Internet's Inte rnational Ad Hoc Committee has announced plans for seven new top-level domains, including "store," "web," and "arts." But the issue of who will run the registry of those names is being hotly contested. Today, all new domain name requests for "com" and its three-letter brethren are processed by the US government contractor Network Solutions, Inc. However, their exclusive deal with the National Science Foundation (which, in the days of government funding, ran the Net's "backbone") runs out in 1998. With the going rate for registering a domain name at $50 per year, and tens of thousands of new domains being registered every month, you can see why other companies might want to get in on NSI's game.The biggest commodity here is not the individual addresses these new domains allow, though, but the right to sell those addresses. The rights to control registrations for each of the seven new domains will be auctioned off, and would-be registrars will need to pony up $20,000 and meet other stringent requirements just to place a bid.While many believe that the magic of competition will improve quality and lower costs, others worry that having a mish-mash of private companies control a critical international resource may not be a great idea.Other critics want to be able to implement their own, sometimes quirky, naming schemes. Some plans from last fall called for more than 100 new top-level domains to be created. The paltry seven that made the final cut are not enough for upstart name registries, some of whom want to be able to create and sell custom corporate domains like "drink.pepsi." A lot of the domain name uproar is just the usual chaos of privatization. A simple, self-contained system that was invented and administered by the government is now being turned over to private hands, and the next two years may be a bit confusing. There won't be any kind of meltdown. Hopefully we'll end up with a more flexible, and maybe even more international, system.Normal Net users have nothing to fear. We adapted to the new telephone area codes, for example; hell, we even learned that "888" indicates a toll-free number. My main worry is that after the change, when "com" is no longer the big thing, I'm going to have to re-learn how to sound cool. No, wait -- I'll go retro! Dot com.***Sites in my SightsYou can learn more, and even register your own domain, by visiting either the official (www.internic.net) or the unofficial (www.alternic.net) name registry services.Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingTo a knowledgeable snooper, e-mail messages and records of websurfing activity travel through cyberspace as naked as postcards. Encryption software is the only way to guarantee privacy, but now -- contrary to previous affirmations -- it looks like the Clinton administration has plans to restrict its use even domestically. Learn more from the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org/crypto/).What should be done about the domain name crunch? Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. The Cyberia Website is at http://www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/©1997 by Paul Bissex

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