Forget “.com” – your next domain name could end with “.melbourne”, “.商店”, or even “.transformers”.
The internet is about to expand massively with up to 2,000 new “top level domains” (TLDs) being added to the familiar “.com” and “.au”.
But just how does internet naming work? Who allocates those names? And how is the naming system expanding to support international characters in domain names?
In communication systems such as the internet, it is important to be able to identify who (or what) you wish to communicate with.
For efficiency, the machines (computers, switches etc) that make up the internet use numerical, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses such as 192.168.1.100.
But such numbers aren’t particularly “friendly” for human use, so the internet adds an extra system that allows names such as www.example.com and translates those into the addresses used within the internet.
The naming system is hierarchical, in that www.example.com is one part of the example.com “domain” of names, which is in turn one part of the .com name space.
Suffixes such as “.com”, “.org” and others are called top-level domains because other domains, such as example.com, are subordinate to them in the hierarchy.
What’s in a name?
Originally, internet names and addresses were administered centrally and manually by Jon Postel of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a self-organised group of volunteers interested in the operation of the internet.
The IETF operated on the principle of “rough consensus and running code”, meaning that decisions were collectively made without formal voting, and favoured technologies that had been demonstrated to work.
Names were allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, and used only English characters from the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII code) which was most commonly used by computers of the time.
By 1990, the administration task grew sufficiently to justify forming an Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) for the task which was funded by the US government as part of broader support for internet development.
IANA controlled the TLDs, but delegated administration of subdomains to companies known as registries. For example, Network Solutions was delegated the .com domain, and would charge organisations for the right to use a domain name.
As the internet expanded in the 1990s, the US government recognised the need to promote competition between registry services and to internationalise administration of the internet, and so established the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to subsume the role of IANA.
ICANN is a nonprofit organisation, and receives funding from supplying internet identifiers. For example, it currently gets about 20 cents each year for each .com domain name.
It is managed by 16-member board of directors drawn from around the world, with Australian participants including Bruce Tonkin who is currently vice-chair of the board, and Paul Twomey who was CEO from 2003 to 2009.
While the United Nations might seem to be a natural neutral administrator of internet identifiers, it has not been needed because of the international basis of ICANN and because historically the internet has developed in parallel to telephone and broadcast television/radio systems that are the focus of the UN’s telecommunications agency, the ITU.
So why expand TLDs now?
In the 1990s, it was important to restrict the variety of top level domains to develop familiarity with internet naming conventions, so that people who saw “example.com” would recognise it as being an internet name.
But now that internet use has spread, further TLDs can be added to provide more identifiers for the wider use while keeping internet names recognisable.
The earliest expansion of the TLDs (after the original set of just .com, .edu, .gov, .mil and .org) was to add country code TLDs, such as .au for Australia and .cn for China.
That helped align the international nature of internet names with existing naming systems (in particular, trademarks) that operate nationally.
However, many organisations or people still could not obtain the name(s) that they sought, usually because someone else in a different industry had got in first.
Registries would also like to open more top-level domains so that names can suggest the category of the site, such as .biz and .xxx.
There has also been increasing need to internationalise domain names by supporting non-Latin characters.
This is implemented by using a system called “Punycode” to translate symbols from the internationalised Unicode character set to the Latin-based ASCII characters that are used in the domain name system, similar to the way in which names are translated into numeric addresses.
New generic TLDs (if you’ve got the money)
In 2008, ICANN started soliciting applications for new TLDs, and revealed almost 2000 such applications in June 2012.
New TLD applications include .melbourne, .sydney, .auspost and .woodside from Australia, and more generic .app, .shop, and .movie domains.
Organisations paid ICANN US$185,000 to apply for each TLD and will pay US$25,000 per annum to maintain rights to use the TLD. Approved applicants are expected to be able to start using the TLDs as early as April 23.
The first batch of 30 application results all demonstrate the use internationalised character sets, such as the “.商店” TLD meaning “.store” in Chinese, and additional application review results will be announced in batches until August.
Even if you have the cash and the motivation to get your own TLD, don’t hold your breath. The next application window has not yet been set, and the one previous to this latest round happened in 2004.
With such growth and internationalisation of the internet naming system, 2013 is sure to be an exciting – if expensive – year.