I’ve just come back from a meeting of ICANN, the body that runs the core of the international domain name system. That meeting, which was held in Cairo last week, was dominated by discussions about extending the domain name system so that people would be able to apply for their own top levels, such as (say) .aotearoa or .tyrell-corporation.
ICANN holds meetings like this three times a year. They are big affairs with lots going on, and often in some exotic location. Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked a bit about what it is like to attend one, and about the domain name system expansion. Read on for my speaking notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.
Q: Domain names, today?
A: Let’s start with an audio clip
[Sound clip: Romeo and Juliet]
A: yes, that’s Juliet saying that it doesn’t matter what things are called. Of course, she’s completely wrong, and Shakespeare meant us to understand that by putting the line into the mouth of a silly naïve girl who eventually kills herself. What things are called is very, very important to us. And that brings us the domain name system.
Q: These are the names on the Internet.
A: Yes, names like radionz.co.nz or amazon.com. In New Zealand, the domain name system is run by InternetNZ.
Q: Is that where you get domain names?
A: No, get them from a domain name registrar – most ISPs are domain name registrars – InternetNZ sets the policy and runs the core infrastructure. And there are analogous bodies in most countries. But the core of the domain name system – the part which sits above all countries, and above .com, .org and so forth, is run by a body called ICANN. We’ve mentioned that before – it has New Zealander Peter Dengate Thrush as its chair.
And ICANN holds a meetings three times a year, each time in a different part of the world. I’ve just come back from an ICANN meeting in Cairo.
Q: What was discussed there?
A: I’ll just sketch out the meeting first – there are about 700 or 800 people at these meetings, and mostly these people meet in a series of smaller groups. So, there are meetings for people interested in country codes like .nz, for instance, and meetings for people interested in IP addresses, and so forth. There’s a meeting for national governments to come together and talk about the Internet, and there’s the ICANN board overseeing the whole thing. You tend to see the same people again and again at the meetings, and over time if you keep going you can build up a relationship and get business done with them.
And the hot topic in ICANN at the moment is the possibility of allowing far more top level domains. So, a top-level domain is something like .com or .org, and ICANN is proposing a process where people can apply for new top level domain to suit themselves. So, you might get Dot Boeing, or Dot Health or Dot McDonalds
Q: So will we all be getting names like that?
A: Not unless you’ve got several hundred thousand dollars, which looks to be the price of admission.
Q: Is this seriously likely to happen?
A: Not clear yet. ICANN has proposed it, but it looks as though there’s a lot of policy to be worked out. Someone who’s new to ICANN told me that, to him, it looked like the wild west. And the US Government isn’t terribly impressed, either. The person from the Department of Commerce – an Assistant Secretary, I think that’s someone rather important – gave a whole list of things that they would expect to be dealt with before a proposal like this could go live.
Q: Like what?
A: The possibility of vertical integration of registries and registrars is one problem. Another is the fact that ICANN is a non-profit, but that this proposal could see it with a great deal of income. And another point that the speaker referred to is “delicate issue of morality and public order”.
Q: What does that mean?
A: That people might want to create domain with names that others would find offensive, perhaps? And the public order remark is presumably a reference to China and similar regimes which can’t cope with references to political concepts like democracy. There are real problems here. We wouldn’t like it if some went out tried to register Dot New Zealand or Dot Kiwi, for example. But the shoe polish company might think that was a fine thing to do.
Q: And what’s going to happen?
A: A bit early to tell yet. But all the component parts of ICANN are very engaged on this issue, and the discussions are continuing. I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen sooner or later.