New Domains to Rule Over

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Plato argued in Republic that the best form of government was a benevolent dictatorship headed by an enlightened philosopher-king. For many years, the Internet had something very much like that in the late Jon Postel.

As the director of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), Postel was the founder and sole manager of the Internet’s addressing system. Strictly speaking, he was more of a benevolent philosopher-postmaster than a king. But he probably had more influence on the Internet’s governance than did any other single person.

For decades, Postel oversaw the process of handing out blocks of IP addresses (strings of digits that uniquely identify each computer attached to the Internet, such as 209.238.59.130). The more user-friendly domain name system, which replaces numeric IP addresses with easier-to-remember domain names (such as www.tweney.com), was managed by Network Solutions.

After Postel died in late 1998, the IANA morphed into the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, created by the U.S. government. Responsibility for both IP addresses and domain names shifted to the bureaucratic body, which is just about the closest thing we have now to Internet overseer. Unfortunately, ICANN was plagued with problems from the start: bureaucratic infighting, an abortive effort to tax domain name registrations, struggles to find a legitimate source of funding, and disputes with Network Solutions. It was almost a year before ICANN accomplished anything.

Now we’re starting to see the effects of ICANN’s work. Network Solutions’s monopoly on domain-name registration has been replaced with a competitive system in which many registrars, such as Register.com, eNom.com, and Dotster.com, compete to sell you domain names. And just last week, ICANN decided to mix things up even more by creating a few new top-level domains (the suffixes attached to every domain name, such as .com and .net). By 2001, you should start seeing Web addresses with endings such as .shop, .union, .sucks, or .sex.

Trouble is, .com domain names are — and probably will continue to be — the most coveted Web addresses. It’s also unclear whether trademarks give companies the right to own any and all related domain names (remember the legal battle between eToys and Etoy.com?). ICANN’s new top-level domains won’t change that.

Will the new domain names open up new territories for virtual homesteaders? Don’t bet on it. Big companies will simply triple their domain-name expenditures (a trivial line item in any big corporation’s budget) and snap up even more domains. Soon you may be able to get to Ford Motor Company at Ford.com, Ford.shop — and probably even Ford.union.

Here’s the bigger question: How much will domain names matter in the near future? Sure, it’s easier to fit a catchy, short domain name on a business card or a television commercial. But long domain names are just as easy to click on as short ones. Over the long haul, as devices wired for the Internet proliferate, we’ll be doing a lot less typing of domain names and a lot more clicking — or even just asking the computer to connect us to Ford or Avis or wherever. And the Internet domain debate will become a moot argument.

Kinda makes you long for a benevolent philosopher to step in and straighten things out, doesn’t it?

Footnote

ICANN now has an “at-large membership” that will be able to vote on some ICANN issues. Anyone in the world who is over 16 and has an e-mail address and a postal address can sign up to be an at-large member onICANN’s site.

New Domains to Rule Over