Internet Domain Names – Things Are Going To Get Worse Before They Get Better

One thing is clear to me about the current domain name situation: things are going to get worse before they get better.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 2/23/1998; LegalResearcher.com; publisher: New York Law Publishing Company

Such is the case with nearly all problems. You hear that clink-clinking sound coming from under your hood. You try to ignore it and manage to do so until the clink turns into a clunk, and the car finally stops running. Then you fix it. There are clearly problems with the current domain name system, but the system is still working. And it won’t get fixed until it breaks for real.

So what’s wrong with the current situation? Several things. First, the majority of domain names are in the “.com” domain space, and it’s getting harder to register new domain names in the crowd that is *.com. Second, browsers made by Netscape and Microsoft exhibit a preference for the “.com” domain, so if you enter the URL “abanet,” Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer will assume that you meant “http://www.abanet.com” rather than “http://www.abanet.org.”

The “.com” top-level domain name has always been the most popular, but this preference exhibited by the browsers that control 99% of the browser market has increased the popularity of the “.com” top-level domain name. Third, organizations are fighting over the (potentially lucrative) right to act as registrar for new top-level domain names.

According the semiannual survey conducted by Network Wizards (http://www.nw.com/), in January 1995, 39 percent of the 71,000 registered domain names were in the “.com” domain space. Three years later, in January 1998, there were 782,000 registered domain names, 72 percent of which were in the “.com” domain space.

Many proposals have been put forth by various organizations to open up other top-level domain names. A related issue is which organization should be the registrar for those domain names. The InterNIC currently serves up the “.com” domain names as well as “.net,” “.org,” and “.gov”. But any organization could act as registrar for any top-level domain name. It doesn’t matter who the registrars are, what matters is that the Internet community agrees about who they are. And since there is money involved, there is a dispute.

In other words, I expect no action on this issue until the current system breaks in a major way – some way that involved domain name service being unavailable for multiple days in multiple major markets. The kind of kick-in-the-butt financial disaster that causes people who care about the bottom line to force problems to get fixed.

I have followed the basic arguments of those proposing alternatives to the ever expanding “.com” domain space. Some folks would like to add new top-level domain names such as “.mall,” “.web,” and “.inc”. But how would these new top-level domain names solve anything? I would certainly expect IBM to register ibm.mall, ibm.web, and ibm.inc if those top-level domain names became available. I expect most other intellectual property lawyers would recommend the same to their clients: register all possible top-level domain names that could cause a likelihood of confusion with your company name and registered trademarks.

In the short term, expect folks to snap up all the “.com” domain names they can. Also, expect third-level domain names to be more widely adopted. For example, West’s Legal Directory now makes third-level domain names available to its client in the form of http://lawfirmname.wld.com. This solution eliminates (well, almost) the InterNIC from the equation, and still provides a domain name that is short and free of distracting letters, slashes, and tildes. I could imagine Fortune providing second-level domain names to the Fortune 500 (think http://ibm.fortune500.com).

A couple of weeks ago (January 30, to be exact), the Clinton administration published a “proposal” for how to get out of the domain name business. The “green paper” (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/dnsdrft.htm) comes in the form of a proposal to be published in the Federal Register by the Department of Commerce. Comments from the public are solicited.

Unfortunately, the administration known for compromise has prepared a proposal full of compromises in an arena ill-suited for compromise: the standards-based Internet.

I’m not a pessimist. I’m a pragmatist. And, by hobby, a taxonomist. I didn’t follow the debate about the Communications Decency Act. I read it, decided is was clearly unconstitutional on its face, concluded that legislators passed it to appease their constituency, and assumed (correctly) that the first judge with a pulse to rule on the issue would strike down the law.

Today, I assume the domain name system is broken, that the successful solution, to succeed, must be logical and simple – regardless of who administers the new top-level domain names.

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