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The snake oil that is domain registries’ big fat new revenue stream

The amount of bullshit reportage being published over this massive change to the internet’s domain name system (DNS) is breathtaking. But then most “technology reporters” know nothing of how DNS works or its history. They fall victim to snake-oil merchants.

Time for a reality check, and a bit of history.

In 1983 when DNS was invented to give internet-connected computers names such as crikey.com.au instead of numbers such as 74.63.45.202, the internet was run by geeks for geeks. The system was naturally set up with a geek’s sense of ordered structure.

Domains are administrative entities,” said the original specification. Each top-level domains (TLD) — the rightmost part of a domain name — reflected who was responsible. We saw .gov for government entities, .mil for military, .edu for the universities, .com for commercial entities, and .org for non-profit organisation.

Later, .net was added for the entities that were responsible for running the internet itself and, when the internet spread beyond the US, every nation got its own country code top level domain (ccTLD), like .au for Australia. The US got one too, .us, but few US organisations use it. America is still the assumed centre or the internet world.

But as the internet grew from thousands of computers to millions and then tens of millions, the simple clarity of this structure was slowly eroded.

New generic top level domains (gTLDs) were added in response to complains that the originals were running out of space. We got .biz for business, .info for websites that had information (as opposed, um, to what?), .museum and others to bring the total to around two dozen.

At the same time, people repurposed the ccTLDs. The Pacific island state of Tuvalu leased out its ccTLD .tv for $50 million to a company that old-sold domains to the television industry. Other domain name hacks saw Tonga’s ccTLD used for go.to, Slovenia’s for pep.si, Colombia’s for mexi.co and many more.

I think it’s fair to say that the world is now generally ignoring any of the system’s stated purposes and doing whatever the heck it wants.

Which brings us to the latest change.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which has co-ordinated this stuff globally since 1998, has decided to open up the generic top level domains to be, well, pretty much everything. That means Pepsi could have .pepsi all to itself. Qantas could have .qantas and use it for booking.qantas and status.qantas and so on. Groups of organisations could register .perth and then use transport.perth and hotels.perth.

It also means internationalised top-level domains beyond our Roman alphabet — Chinese, Arabic, whatever. The infrastructure is in place to handle it.

But there’s a catch, and I don’t mean the $185,000 price tag for each new TLD. Owning a TLD means you take on responsibility for the technical infrastructure needed to run that domain on the internet and keeping it secure. And secure it must be kept, otherwise how will end users know that they’re really connecting to commonwealth.bank and not an imposter?

The question I have about this grand new thing, the question I’ve always had, is “Who even needs this?”

Sure, internationalisation makes sense. Time to end American cultural imperialism on the internet, right? But seriously, is anyone’s branding really damaged by having a .com at the end of their domain? Is anyone really more likely to find your business because it’s under .perth instead of .com.au?

The reality of the internet in 2012 is that people use domain names less and less and simply type what they want to find into the nearest text entry box on their computer screen. And Google — sorry, Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Bing, but you’re way behind in this race — Google usually manages to figure out what you want.

The web browsers even help you if you choose the wrong text entry box. Go on. Try it now. Type “qantas” with any .com into the address bar of your web browser — not the search box — and see what happens. The very first link is the Qantas website, right? Was that so hard?

As the Boston Globe quite rightly reported, “internet users are more likely to type ‘new Muppet movie’ into their browser’s search box than to know the official site is at Disney.go.com/muppets.”

Domain name registries have already profited from corporate paranoia over their trademarks, scoring yet another annual fee every time they register their brand in every country’s ccTLD and every generic TLD. Now they can sell them a big fat expensive TLD all of their own — along with the technology and security process for peace of mind.

And the idea that internet security will be improved if genuine businesses have their own TLD is just rubbish. People already fall for scams such going to paypa1.com rather than paypal.com. Did you even see the difference between the letter “l” and the numeral “1” until I pointed it out?

No, this whole thing is mostly just snake oil. Domain registries get a big fat new revenue stream, but that’s about it.

Companies are quite right to wait this one out, especially when the hurry-up noises are coming from those with a profit motive. And yet as our friends at Technology Spectator report, major Australian registrar Melbourne IT reckons it has already managed about 100 applications, 20 of those from Australian companies.

But … why?

6
  • 1
    cannedheat
    Posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    As a certified ex-geek I too thought this made no sense and would lead to a huge mess. I did like the idea of giving porn the .xxx TLD perhaps as a precursor to enforcing its relocation - but yeah I’m just an ex-geek…

  • 2
    Scott
    Posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. I particularily like the comment in todays Herald by the CEO of ARI Registry services who tried to justify the price tag of $185,000 on security grounds :-
    “It eradicates phishing and all thse other malicious activities because there is some sort of genuineness about the internet”. What rubbish
    As you say, it’s all about search functionality these days. With google, bing and the new voice activated searches used by devices, not to mention the rise of facebook, linkedin, twitter and similar “private internets” and the decline of email as a tool, a domain name is only going to become less relevant as a brand in the future.

  • 3
    joanjett
    Posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    This is interesting as I was only reading about Paul Garrin’s prediction 15 years ago about the possibilities of the DNS providing censorship opportunities for governments and the need for deregulation of the system. See link here:
    http://www.artfagcity.com/2012/01/03/net-artists-warned-us-about-sopa-15-years-ago/
    Now that prediction seems to be coming true with the introduction of SOPA in the US. This has provoked outrage and the development of an Android app which scans barcodes to see whether the company who produces the product is associated with the legislative push. See here: http://www.extremetech.com/computing/112579-boycott-sopa-an-android-app-that-terrifies-publishers-and-politicians
    Now the Chaos computer club is talking about taking cyberspace into space:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16367042?tk=rel_news
    As you can see, I’ve been really busy at work all day!

  • 4
    LacqueredStudio
    Posted Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    the decline of email

    What … just like TV foreshadowed the decline of radio half a century ago?

  • 5
    Meski
    Posted Friday, 13 January 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Go on. Try it now. Type “qantas” with any .com into the address bar of your web browser — not the search box — and see what happens. The very first link is the Qantas website, right? Was that so hard?

    Or be like Chrome, which has dispensed with the notion of separated url and search. Just type what you want into one box, and let Chrome work out what you mean.

  • 6
    Zarathrusta
    Posted Wednesday, 18 January 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    What actually needs to happen is that not only are other country’s root domains created and available in their own character set, but that the TLDs are implemented in a peer to peer manner so that each country has full control of its root registry and this can’t be shut down by any minority of other countries. Other countries registries should faithfully mirror each target country’s registry for sites actually accessed in their country, and browsers should go directly to the country of origin to double check in case the country of browsing is attempting to censor the other country’s sites.

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