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What's in a Name?

Ian Fantom

The present handful of top-level domain names (TLD's) could be set for an explosion if the registration market opens up, as envisaged by leading members of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). At present the only TLD's allowed are 'com', 'org', 'net', 'int', 'gov', 'mil', and the two-letter ISO country codes. The TLD's 'com', 'org', 'net' and 'int' are international, and can be used in any country, though 'mil' and 'gov' are limited to usage within the US.

Jon Postel, head of IANA issued a Request for Comments (RFC) [1] last year, proposing that the present monopoly be broken, and that the registration market be opened up. "Open, free-market competition has proven itself in other areas of the provisioning of related services (ISPs, NSPs, telephone companies) and appears applicable to this situation", says Postel.

At issue is the international TLD (iTLD) 'com'. "The current situation with regards to these domain spaces, and the inherent perceived value of being registered under a single top level domain (.com) is undesirable and should be changed", says Postel. He states that there is a perceived need to open the market in commercial iTLDs to allow competition, differentiation, and change, and yet maintain some control to manage the Domain Name System operation.

Postel argues that positive market forces dictate a diversity in top-level domain space. Free competition would be the best way to insure quality service to end-user and customers. His proposal plans the creation of up to 150 new iTLD's. Up to 50 new registries would be awarded.

Postel's proposals are, however, controversial. Indeed, the mailing list for discussion of new domain names, newdom.iia.org, was closed down because of the acrimoneous nature of the messages. A domain name is more than part of an electronic address; it is a piece of advertising akin to a trade mark.

Robert Shaw, of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, speaking at the workshop 'Coordination and Administration of the Internet' held at Harvard University in September [2], agreed that change is needed. "Everyone trying to register directly under the narrow confines of '.com' won't work for much longer. With currently around 350,000 entries in '.com' and registrations running at over 10,000 per week, the desirable possible permutations of useful names is quickly running out", he said, "However, the related issues for a sensible evolution are very complex and there is far from unanimity on what to do next. The only consensus seems to be that something needs to be done - and fast".

However, the legal issues are complex. Trademark holders will wish to protect their trademarks against infringement, and they could possibly be infringed by use of inappropriate domain names, and they will also wish to have access to domain names which reflect their trademarks. Trademark law, however, is national, whereas international domain names would clearly be international. An international domain name taken out in, say, Japan, may violate a trade mark in, say Switzerland.

There is an argument to eliminate international top-level domain names altogether, to avoid such legal confusion. "While this is an interesting suggestion, it is completely unrealistic", says Postel, "The concept of moving - renaming - all the over 200,000 companies now registered in the COM domain is simply a non-starter". So, could one just close down the 'com', 'net' and 'org' TLD's to new applicants? "I don't think this will work. There would certainly be a lot of complaints (and probably legal actions) suggesting that some unfair practices were being followed and that the new requesters were being arbitrarily disadvantaged. I think it would be hard to argue that over 200,000 registrations following a procedure in place over 5 years was a small mistake", says Postel, who also points out also that such a proposal would reinforce nationalistic tendencies rather than support the shared world spanning community feeling.

Another contributer, Simon Higgs, [3] proposes using 42 iTLN's based on the International Trademark Schedule of Goods and Services. Whereas Postel envisaged three-character iTLN's, such as 'chm' for companies in the chemical business, Higgs envisages iTLN's from three to twelve characters. Examples of Higgs' scheme are 'chem', 'paint', 'soap', 'oil' for goods, and 'bus'(business), 'fin' (finance), 'const' (construction), 'tel' (telecommunications) for services.

Higgs also envisages corporate iTLN's for large multinational companies. A company such as IBM could then have names such as '*.us.ibm', '*.ja.ibm', '*.net.ibm', '*.corp.ibm'. This would give this type of company a unique presence on the net, though the practical advantage over '*.ibm.us' etc may have more to do with marketing than with ease of use. It is envisaged that such iTLN's would only occasionally be awarded.

In the UK, a new not-for-profit company, Nominet UK, has taken over the responsibilities of the British Naming Committee from July 1 last year [4], though they consist mainly of the same people. Nominet UK is limited by guarantee, and registered with Companies House. Domain names available at present are: 'co.uk' (commercial), 'org.uk' (non-commercial), 'ac.uk' (academic), 'gov.uk' (government), 'police.uk', 'sch.uk' (schools), 'mod.uk' (Ministry of Defence), 'nhs.uk' (National Health Service), 'net.uk' (Internet networks), 'ltd.uk' and 'plc.uk' (companies registered at Companies House).

The 'ltd.uk' and 'plc.uk' domain names are strictly regulated. Firms not registered with Companies House are not eligible for these domain names. Those that are must register the name exactly corresponding to the company name, except for characters not in the English character set, and certain reserved words in English and in Welsh. The process of allocation is eventually to be automated, though Nominet UK expect to verify a sample of the applications. Originally, Nominet did not intend to introduce the 'plc.uk' domain, but they were advised by their legal experts that any company registered with plc would be comitting a criminal offence by registering a domain name ending in 'ltd.uk' - an indication of how legally sensitive domain naming can be.

Allocation of domain names was free of charge under the British Naming Committee, but Nominet UK have introduced a charge of £50 per year (first two years to be paid up front). In the spirit of true competition, a rival, NomiNation [5], has been formed, which charges only £45 per year for the tag 'uk.com'. It will be interesting to see whether the commercial subdomains within the 'uk' TLD open up on similar lines to those envisaged for the iTLD's, giving options such as 'chem.uk', 'paint.uk', 'soap.uk' etc, thus challenging the iTLD's. One point in their favour, and apparently not covered in the RFC's, is that of language. Smaller companies are likely to require expressive domain names in their own language. The French authories, for instance, have created domain names such as 'barreau.fr' (barreaux regionaux - barristers), 'cci.fr' (Chambres de Commerce et d'Industrie), 'gouv.fr' (government), 'presse.fr'. Perhaps we will soon see 'chim.fr', 'peinture.fr', 'savon.fr', etc. as well.


[1] Postel, Jon: 'New Registries and the Delegation of International Top Level Domains', http://www.iiia.org/draft/draft-postel-iana-itld-admin-02.txt Bad link removed August 1999)

[2] Shaw, Robert: 'Internet Domain Names: Whose Domain Is This?', Presented at the workshop "Coordination and Administration of the Internet" held at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, September 9-10, 1996.

[3] Higgs, Simon: 'Top Level Domain Classification and Catagorization', http://www.iiia.org/draft/draft-higgs-tld-cat-01.txt Bad link removed August 1999

[4] 'Nominet outlines plans ...': http://www.vnu.co.uk/ib
Nominet press release: http://www.nic.uk/press.html

[5] Nomination: http://www.nomination.uk.com/

Ian Fantom
EMail: Ian@mintex.demon.co.uk

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