What's in a Web Domain Name? For a System Under Strain, It Spells Trouble


The Internet has introduced many new problems that prompt policymakers to shake their heads in bewilderment--including taxation, censorship, intellectual property and computer security. But the most significant problem seems to lie with the Internet's domain name system, the global addressing system that allows people to find Web sites, e-mail to get to its intended recipients and computers on the Internet to communicate at all. There's a growing sense that the domain name system is unraveling under increasing strain, but how this might be remedied is a source of rampant confusion and controversy.

Technically, the domain name system consists of three parts. First is the addressing system of Internet Protocol (IP) numbers, the 32-bit numbers that are the true addresses of computers connected to the Internet. Next is the naming system, the by-now familiar names that include .com, .org, .edu, etc., which are collectively known as top level domains, or TLDs. The naming system was devised so people would not have to remember long strings of numbers to find a computer or send e-mail. Finally, there is the routing system, which "maps" domain names to IP numbers. Computers called "root servers" contain a kind of giant directory that links specific names to specific addresses on the Internet.

This system, more or less the creation of the late Jon Postel of USC and the Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey, has been working since the early 1980s. In 1998, the U.S. government handed over management of the entire domain name system to the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, also based in Marina del Rey. ICANN's board of directors held one of its periodic general meetings recently in Stockholm, an event that featured an outpouring of frustration and controversy about how the group is managing its new responsibilities.

There are several political headaches about domain names that have no clear solutions. Because domain names have to be unique, they are inevitably linked to trademark disputes when two or more businesses, or people, want the same name. Nissan Motor Co., for example, has sued Nissan Computer Corp. in Raleigh, N.C., over use of the domain name http://www.nissan.com. The American Film Marketing Assn. has sued a small business doing online classified ads and auction information with the domain http://www.afm.com. In many of these cases, small companies and individuals are confronted with batteries of intellectual property lawyers employed by large trademark holders.

Another problem is that domain names are increasingly viewed by governments and other agencies of authority as mechanisms of control and censorship, while civil libertarians see them as examples of free speech. There has been talk in Congress of forcing pornographic sites to use a .xxx TLD, which could then be filtered. That raises the specter of a form of government-sanctioned censorship.

Domain names also raise issues of privacy. Using a search tool such as the Whonami Global Internet Name Search site (http://www.whonami.com), anyone can look up the name and address of whoever is registered as the owner of a domain name. That opens the door to spam, hackers and compromise of anonymity.

New problems loom for the Internet addressing system too. Once we begin to extend the Internet into all kinds of new devices such as telephones, hand-held computers, smart cars, smart highways, smart houses, etc., we'll need new ways to address those devices. Technologists hope that we'll eventually devise a system in which messages or data will reach users no matter where they are or what kind of network device they're using. The current domain name system can't do that.

"I think we're asking too much of" the domain name system, said Martin Mueller, professor of public policy at Syracuse University and a member of a team studying the system for the National Academy of Sciences. "A technical alternative is really the only long-term solution," he said. Mueller and many other experts think that ICANN is moving too slowly and unwisely trying to hold on to its centralized control. He added, "If we had a U.S. government that was not asleep at the switch, we could turn things around pretty fast." The Bush administration hasn't yet filled government positions with people who should be paying attention to these issues.

Like many other features of the Internet, the domain name system was developed at a time when the Internet was much smaller than it is now, much more U.S.-centric, and when it was isolated from lawyers, politics and disputes involving big sums of money. Now, the very heart of how the Internet works might be headed for a crisis, and the institutions we have to manage this problem seem mired in paralysis and cluelessness.


Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

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