Saturday, 9 July 2011

What's in a (domain) name

On the one hand it has been difficult to understand restrictions on what could be made into a domain name. After all, the domain name system works by looking at a string of alphanumerics (plus the odd bit of punctuation) in a database that then tells your computer the IP address that matches that domain. But there have always been restrictions.

Some were localised, such as Nominet in the UK does not allow third level domain names to be made up of just two letters: so is not allowed. Some were more general, such as the use only of letters in the basic non-accented roman alphabet. (I should point out that we should not think of these as characters with accents, they are different letters. In Danish the letter Å comes after Z in the alphabet ... making it difficult to find Århus in a gazetteer ... but in DNS terms it is 'unaccented Roman letters' that count.)

Actually my favourite historic oddity is that back in the early days of domain names, academics tried to get us to accept a domain name structure that had a descending hierarchy (ie rather than on the basis that it was more logical. They had a point, if you think about it, telephone numbers work this way around, so why not domains. However, they lost that battle.

DNS, as it is called, is all about to change in a big way, because ICANN, who 'run' the domain name system have thrown the doors open to non-Roman characters (including things like Arabic, Hebrew and Chinese) and are also freeing up the so-called generic top level domains (known as gLTDs) so that 'anyone' could devise and set up their own equivalent to .com. The former has to be a good thing since the world has come a long way since upper case ASCI characters were considered a suitable way to communicate. The latter is a little more complicated.

The cost of entry into this brave new DNS world is not going to be cheap. $185 thousand is the starting price, and the published FAQ says
Any established public or private organization located anywhere in the world can apply to form and operate a
new gTLD Registry.
This would exclude individuals ... but then is running a domain registry something an individual would do?

So what kind of organisations might apply to set up new gLTDs? Some will be brands, and I could be cynical and say this looks like another way to part large companies from their money in the name of brand-protection. So there might in future be such domains as .bbc, .sony or .macdonalds. However, such addresses would probably map to web pages already in an existing domain. Some gLTDs might provide a focus for beliefs and opinions, so we might see .vatican, .democrats or .flatearth. Some could even encompass spaces with a more artistic or emotional intent, so I may consider registering .photography, .thaifood or even .funonafridaynight.

For those of us with clients to advise on domains this may not, at first glance, be a big issue since few of them would want to bear the cost and hassle of running a registry. However, we need to keep an eye on what is registered, since one or more of the new gLTDs could be tempting to a client ... and remember, the registrar of the gLTD will be setting the price.