Web Informant #225, 17 November 2000:
Being a master of your domain just got harder


The simple days of dot com are over, and already I am getting nostalgic for them. Soon, you'll have lots more choices of what your nom de com in cyberspace will be, and lots more places where you can sign up for your name. But with choices comes confusion. Recent developments in the Internet domain name game will make it harder for people to understand the registration process, let alone buy the rights to whatever name they desire.

It is all very ironic, really. Never in the short history of the Internet have we seen such expansion of what is called the top level domain name space, those suffixes like .com, .net, and .gov, among others. There has been lots of activity over the past few weeks, on several fronts:

Yesterday, the international organization that is in charge of the whole domain system called ICANN met in Los Angeles and approved seven new top level domains: .biz, .info, .name, .pro, .aero, .museum and .coop. While it will take a few more months to iron out the procedures on how we can register new names with these suffixes, the land grab is already on. Registrars.com will already take your money on some of these, even though technically no actual domain name will be connected to any web site or other Internet address and no formal process has been put in place to do this. Other registrars will put your email name on their mailing list and let you know when you can sign up under the new names.

While some of these new names are probably a good thing, I can't be sure what the difference between a .pro (for professional) and .biz (for business) is, and how that distinguishes anyone with the same .com address. But wait, as if this isn't enough, there is more to the name game. In October, several registrars began a trial run of registering domains in several Asian character sets. One of the more frustrating things for many of the world's citizens is that the first word for the web is "English." If you speak and write in an alphabet that uses some other character set (and about a quarter of the world's population does, although probably less for the world's computer-literate population), you still have to deal with the Roman alphabets when you want to type in a URL.

The new character sets only go so far, however. You still have to use the .com, .net, or .org suffixes in your name, though. But to make matters more complex, you can't actually attach these names to any real web site yet -- that will come later. Several registrars have quickly offered their services here, including translations of English names into these character sets.

To confound matters, the Chinese government has launched its own registry, only with the entire name appearing in Chinese characters. China claims they have the right to control these names and that any names registered with a Roman .com from non- Chinese registrars are invalid. No, I am not making this up.

Speaking of registrars, as I mentioned in a previous essay (WI #187), there are now a number of competing registrars to Network Solutions (NSI, who are now owned by Verisign). These are the people who take care of the administrative side of keeping track of your domain. They don't actually maintain the central registry database of names -- that is still a monopoly of NSI for the .com, .net., and .org names.

The new top level names such as .biz etc. will have new organizations that own these registries, at least if all the proposals get implemented as planned. Some of them will probably be offered by the existing registrars, such as Register.com, and some of them will probably be offered by new companies. Things are still in flux.

But wait, there is more. This month Canada began the process of opening up its .ca domain to anyone who is doing business in the country. To confound matters, existing .ca domain owners have a few more weeks to re-register their domain names, or run the risk that they will lose them to someone quicker on the keyboard. A bunch of registrars will take your money and set you up with a new .ca name here. (Of course, if you speak French, they have a separate series of pages for you too.)

Are you still with me? I know it is all very confusing. I spent a good part of yesterday listening to the ICANN meeting, reviewing several web sites, and I still am not sure what is really going on. I was amazed that I could follow along with the audio feed from LA -- in addition to that, they had a real-time scribe sending out summaries of the discussions, so you could tell who was speaking, along with posting meeting notes and other materials on a series of web pages. You didn't really have to get on a plane to LA, unless of course you were one of the people who had to make the decision which names were in, and which weren't. I don't envy their jobs.

But these new names spell trouble for those of us who have been fortunate to be masters of our own domains. Because clearly when the floodgates do open, there will be lots of people who missed out on the dot com gold rush and will see this as an opportunity to grab some of this new cyber real estate. Indeed, several of the registrar web sites characterize this in exactly these terms, to try to whip people up in some kind of feeding frenzy. Don't delay! Each second ten new domains are registered somewhere around the world!

So I, lucky enough to own strom.com and webinformant.com, am worried about having the rights to strom.info, strom.biz, et al. I go over to Registrars.com and give them my credit card number (what the heck), only to find that both of these names are already taken! I am already too late, and things really haven't even gotten started yet. So who owns these yet-to-be domains? I can't find out -- they don't have a system like WHOIS for these new names. And how can I really be sure that they are taken? What about if some other registrar "reserves" strom.info? What if ICANN doesn't allow these early birds to take possession? What if China wants to run the whole ball of wax?

Oy, such a headache.

But that's not the only headache concerning domains. Coincidentally this week, I decided to transfer my registrar for strom.com from NSI to Register.com. I wanted to see exactly how this competition thing would work. Note that all I wanted to do was pay someone else to do the paperwork: my web site and email servers and everything else didn't move a millimeter from its existing spot at Sohonet.com, my hosting provider. (I still think it is a good idea to keep your hosting provider separate from your registrar, although many registrars offer hosting and other services.)

After a dozen emails and four separate phone calls, including one to the president of the company, I think I am all set and the transfer is done. When they got my application (which I had to fax, to keep things secure), Register.com mistyped my address, david@storm.com, and since your email address is key to their entire system, all sorts of things went wrong. Hopefully, they will do better as time goes on.

Sometimes, competition can be a big bummer. And if you care about your cyberspace properties, be prepared to see lots of confusion as the new West opens up in the coming months. In the meantime, I am looking into how to spell Strom in various Asian characters, and if anyone has a tape of that infamous Seinfeld episode, let me know.

N.B. One alternative to Register.com is DomainsMatter.com, and comes highly recommended from a friend. They appear to have better security than register.com, but only register .com/.net/.org addresses.

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David Strom
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