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Internet domain names - what's your address?

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Wendy M Grossman Wendy M Grossman | 11:42 UK time, Friday, 30 September 2011

One of the key elements of the Internet's infrastructure is set to change in January 2012: the way named addresses, known as domain names, are created.

WebWise has already explained the basics of domain names - the 'bbc.co.uk' part of the address in the title bar of your browser. The system of assigning these names is called the domain name system (or DNS) and is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Under this structure, every internet address ends with either a country code (such as .uk for the United Kingdom or .eu for the EU) or a so-called "generic" top-level domain or gTLD (like .com, .org, or .info). Second-level domains, that is the word just to the left of the top-level domain, may either be a name chosen by an individual or an organisation to represent themselves (such as the 'bbc' in 'bbc.com') or a word designating a category, (such as 'co' for company in 'bbc.co.uk', 'org' for organisation in '.org.uk', or 'ac' in '.ac.uk' for academic).

The top-level domains are managed under contract from ICANN by organisations called registries which liaise with the public. When you create a website for yourself, a new business, or a club, you pay a registrar to create the domain for you and thereafter a small annual fee. Different registries have different rules about who may register.

When the domain name system was originally invented, the generic top-level domains (or gTLDs) were intended to function as categories: countries, types of organisation. So .com was intended for multinational commercial organisations, .org for non-profit orgs, and .edu for educational institutions. There are also special-purpose TLDs, such as .gov (US government) and .mil (US military). Organisations operating within a single country were supposed to register under the appropriate country code - such as .us for Americans. In practice, however, almost everyone wanted to be in .com, which is still the most popular top-level domain.

The popularity of the .com domain led to concerns in the mid-1990s that the supply of names that were easy to remember and easy to guess was running out. In 2000, after much debate, ICANN created seven new gTLDs to expand the available options, including .biz and .info, and followed up in 2002 by creating special-purpose gTLDs such as .museum, .travel, .aero. A few top-level domains that sound as though they were created for special purposes, such as .tv (Tuvalu) and .ly (Libya), are actually country codes.

ICANN plans to change this landscape dramatically by allowing any string of letters and numbers to be a top-level domain (such as, for example, .bbc). The plan is controversial. Applying for a new TLD will cost $185,000 plus an annual fee if accepted. Businesses argue that they will be forced to register their names to protect their trademarks and reputation. Consumer organisations believe the new system will be confusing and potentially dangerous.

Here are some tips to bear in mind if you are registering a domain name for your own website:

  • Avoid underscores and hyphens
  • Avoid registering a name that is widely associated with another, better-known organisation or product
  • If your organisation operates only within the UK, register a .uk. address
  • Pick something easy to spell, remember, and guess

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