Dr Heather Forrest from ACU’s Faculty of Law explains how soon-to-be-implemented changes to domain names will alter your internet experience.
Some may be surprised by the following statement: today’s internet is a limited space that has developed in ways not intended by its designers. When a member of the public – whether a business, an individual, an organisation or a government body – seeks to acquire a domain name (a process referred to as “registration”), equally as important as the choice of name to register is the choice of top-level domain in which to register. At present, there are 22 top-level domains not directly associated with a particular country (such as Australia’s “.au”), including the best known and most popular “.com”. Over the coming months, hundreds of new domains will be added to the internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). What will this new, expanded internet look like? What differences will internet users experience? The answers to these questions are shaped at least in part by the path of development that the internet has taken to its current structure.
More than 25 years have passed since the implementation of the internet DNS. The earliest origins of the internet lie in a single list, maintained by a single American university research institute, which identified every computer connected to the budding internet. That list contained the unique identifiers assigned to each computer (referred to as a host): a human-readable name (for example, “Delta”) and a computer-readable numerical address termed an Internet Protocol (IP) address. By the early 1980s this list, which was called the “hosts.txt file”, identified several hundred hosts. Updates to the list were required each time a new computer joined the internet. This step is critical because until the list was updated, other computers would not know to look for this new computer on the network. The new computer would effectively remain invisible to all other network users until the list revealed the new entrant.
It became increasingly clear to the technological community that as the internet network grew to absorb larger numbers of host computers, it would not be feasible to continuously update a single list or leave that task in the hands of a single entity. The preferred solution, attributed to Paul Mockapetris at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, was to divide and apportion the responsibility of keeping track of the hosts connected to the network. From this relatively simple idea today’s DNS was born.
The DNS structures the internet into defined areas, called domains. The entity with authority over a particular domain is responsible for keeping a database of all of the hosts connected to that domain; it assumes the role of maintaining and hosting an equivalent of the hosts.txt file, but for that domain only. As a result, there is no longer one single, authoritative list of all of the hosts in the network but many lists, each containing only the connections within a particular area of the network. Dividing up responsibility for keeping track of the computers in the network this way lent itself naturally to a hierarchical system that the early internet architects envisioned as having the shape of a tree.
The trunk of the tree represents the entity responsible for maintaining a list of the name and addresses of all of the large branches connected to the trunk; this list is called the root. The large branches connected to the root constitute the top-level domains, or TLDs, such as the internationally recognised .com and the country-specific .au. Each TLD authority is responsible for maintaining a list of the names and addresses of all of the branches that connect directly to it. These connecting branches are two levels removed from the trunk, and so are referred to as second-level domains. The authority for each second-level domain is responsible for keeping track of the branches that connect to it, and so on down the hierarchy.
The domain names that internet users type into an internet browser clearly replicate this tree structure: the domain name is comprised of the names of all of the branches (host computers) in the hierarchical tree through which a request for information must route in order to find the desired source of information, from the name of the most specific location at the far left of the address to the least specific, the root (represented by an invisible dot), at the far right. The component names that make up a domain name are separated by dots, where each component name is a sub-domain of the name to its right. The additional “www” component of the address signifies the World Wide Web software application, which affects the way a web page looks and functions by enabling links to other pages. When the DNS launched in 1994, it contained eight generic top-level domains, of which only three were available to the general public: .com, .net and .org. Three TLDs, .arpa, .gov and .mil, were reserved for United States government use. Two others ultimately became restricted spaces: .int reserved for recognised international organisations and international treaty bodies and .edu for US-based educational institutions. In 1999, control over the internet DNS was shifted out of the US government and into the hands of the newly created Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). One of ICANN’s core missions is to expand the DNS by creating new domains through which users can identify and communicate. Soon after its establishment, ICANN began experimental expansion rounds, first in 2000 and then in 2004.
Together these added 15 new top-level domains to the DNS, including .biz and .info and the still relatively unknown .museum, .aero, .travel and .pro. These experimental expansion programs proved to the technical community that the internet DNS could expand on a larger scale. Nearly 2000 applications were received during an application period held between January and May 2012. Applications were made for top-level domains identifying, for example, interests and activities such as .tennis and .translations; professions such as .lawyer and .doctor; cultural, linguistic and religious groups such as .latino and .catholic; products and services such as .insurance and .construction; geographic names such as .africa, .melbourne and .sydney, and brand names such as .ferrari and .yahoo. More than 100 applications were received for domain names in non-Latin language scripts including Chinese (traditional and simplified), Arabic and Cyrillic. Applications are currently undergoing an evaluation process designed to test technical and financial robustness. Each domain’s stated object and purpose, as well as its commitments to a particular community, as carefully described at the top of the application, are also being examined.
When the first applications are approved (current estimates are that this will begin to occur later this year), they will then be added to the root, that master list of the largest branches on the internet tree. The addition of hundreds of new top-level domains will affect how internet users search for information in ways not yet understood. One possibility is that search engines will need to become more focused: rather than search the entire internet, a search might be narrowed by the choice of top-level domain such as .cars or .food or .melbourne. The way companies, organisations and religious groups communicate will change as information is presented in brand and organisation-specific domains, through domain names such as www.handbag.coach and “www.restaurants.kosher”. While making it possible for communities and groups and individuals to self-identify on the internet, new TLDs also compartmentalise the internet and prevent interaction between different groups. New TLDs may help to preserve some languages while discouraging the use of other languages. Some information may become easier to find. On the other hand, the enormous increase in the quantity of information may make it impossible to find anything. These are the challenges that lie ahead for all internet users.
Dr Heather Forrest
Dr Heather Forrest is a Senior Lecturer in ACU’s Faculty of Law. She has lived, worked and studied in United States, England, France, Switzerland and Australia. Dr Forrest is a member of the New York State Bar Association and is licensed to practice law by the State of New York, USA.
Her legal experience covers a wide range of areas, from domestic and cross-border legal transactions in a multi-national law firm, a judicial clerkship in the United States’ highest military court, pro bono assistance to a local arts organisation, and academic positions. Before joining the foundation academic team in ACU’s Faculty of Law, Dr Forrest taught legal research and writing, intellectual property and other commercial law subjects at the University of New England and has also taught at Deakin University and the Australian National University.