The Domain Name System (DNS) has been around for a while now and some modifications are long overdue. The selection of top-level domain names is very limited; for instance, there is no good category for individuals. There is also little or no mechanism to keep organizations from stepping on each others' names. Finally, the current monopoly on DNS administration has, by and large, resulted in high prices and spotty service.

Changes are on the way, however, which will increase the number of top-level domain names, allow real competition in domain name registration, and provide arbitration methods for ownership disputes. There is no guarantee that the transition will totally smooth, but there is good reason to be optimistic.

Current Domain Names

At this time, there are a few hundred top-level domains. The vast majority of these, however, are "national" names, as:

      ad     Andorra
      ae     United Arab Emirates
      af     Afghanistan
      ag     Antigua
      ai     Anguilla
      ...  

Use of a national domain name does not strictly guarantee that a site is located in the indicated country. For instance, a company might well have branches in several countries. It is also possible that someone might obtain a national domain name for personal reasons (e.g., niven@we.made.it). By and large, however, national domain names are tied to, and administered by, the countries in question.

In most countries, the sub-domain divisions are topical. Thus, .ac.kr is used for academic institutions in Korea, while .edu.au is used for schools in Australia. Similarly, .co.uk is used for British companies, while .com.br serves the same function in Brazil.

Logically, the US should use a similar arrangement (e.g., .com.us). For historic reasons, however, the US uses top-level names instead. Some of these are used by the government itself:

      gov     government
      mil     military

The remaining names are administered by the InterNIC (rs.internic.net) under contract to the US government. Most users of these domains are based in the US, but not all. There is no reason to assume, for instance, that foo.com or bar.org is based in the US.

      com     commercial 
      edu     educational
      org     organization
      net     network

On the other hand, the fact that the US does not use topical sub-domains has left the .*.us name space open for other use. In practice, the .us domain is organized geographically and administered in a decentralized fashion. Thus, a site like well.sf.ca.us is almost guaranteed to be in the San Francisco area.

The IAHC Proposal

As noted above, some new domain names are coming along. These will expand (and to some extent, replace) the old ones. The International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC; www.iahc.org) has proposed seven new top-level domain names:

      arts    arts, culture, entertainment
      firm    businesses
      info    information services
      nom     individuals
      rec     recreation
      store   sales organizations
      web     WWW organizations

It is easy to find problems with these categories. For instance, many organizations will fall into more than one area. No categorization scheme will please everyone, however, and this scheme has the virtues of extensibility, simplicity, and support by key international organizations.

In addition, the IAHC proposal includes provisions for mediation in cases where multiple organizations want the same domain name. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO; www.wipo.org) is setting up a panel of international experts to help mediate disputes of this nature.

In place of the current InterNIC monopoly, we would see a 28-member "Council of Registrars", selected by a geographically-based lottery. Under the proposal, seven members of the Council would be chosen for each of four geographical regions.

It is not surprising that the InterNIC has a number of objections to the IAHC proposal. What I did find surprising was the exact nature of the objections. The InterNIC appears to be strongly in favor of competition in DNS registration; in fact, they find the IAHC proposal to be far too restrictive in this area.

On the other hand, they are concerned that the mediation service and coordination of key technical aspects may have not been given sufficient planning. Network Solutions (www.netsol.com). has issued a white paper called "Secure Internet Administration and Competition in Domain Naming Services" (www.netsol.com/papers/internet.html). Although I see some possibility that some self-interested foot-dragging is involved, the paper brings up a large number of plausible issues.

If you are interested in the future of the Domain Name System, I strongly recommend that you look over the sites above. The Internet's technical and political machinations make very interesting reading and may help to prepare you for the upcoming new regime(s).