Domain name expansion signals political shift of the internet

Mark your territory now. It’s about to kick off online. the justified sinner

More than 1,000 new generic top-level domain names – the part of an internet address that comes after the “dot” – are being rolled out by the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It’s a move that will change how the internet as we know it looks and feels and has significant political implications to boot.

Country code top-level domains are the two-character suffixes that denote a nation, such as .fr, .de and .co.uk. All the others are known as generic top-level domains. It is this category that is set to expand dramatically over the next few months.

The generic name system has grown slowly. We started with seven (.com, .org, .gov, .int, .mil, .edu, and .arpa) and ICANN has introduced only a handful more ever since, including .biz and .info.

This latest batch of additions is much wider and follows an open call for proposals. One of the most significant changes in this round will be the addition of generics in non-Latin characters. For the first time, we’ll start to see internet addresses ending in Arabic or Chinese scripts.

Much of the debate surrounding the proliferation of generic top-level domains surrounds whether they will help or hurt internet navigation. Even with existing domain names, it can be hard enough to remember if the website you are looking for ends with a .com. a .org or a country code. Now there will be thousands of potential suffixes to choose from and to remember.

And although businesses can now choose all kinds of different domain names, such as .gifts, .flights or .buzz, they will have to pay to register each of them. At the moment, many businesses purchase both the .org and .com versions of their names and forward traffic from one to the other. This is often done to prevent others from buying up the alternative names and is seen as a necessary expenditure. However, purchasing thousands of names to lock up a trade name may be prohibitively expensive for small businesses.

On the other hand, supporters of generic expansion hope that a proliferation of names, which previously had been limited by arbitrary convention, will lead to falling prices, lowering the cost for casual registrants if not for large corporate users.

Online territories

The explosion of generic top level domains is the latest phase in a series of attempts to define the relationship between the space of the internet and that of the sovereign state. When the internet system was first designed, it was assumed that a simple system would suffice. Country codes were added as an afterthought and internet governance officials anticipated that these would receive little use. They saw the internet as a global space for civil society that would transcend state boundaries.

In fact, although the early internet was a global system, it was heavily dominated by the United States. The US had its own country code in the form of .US but it was hardly used. Websites were much more frequently registered under the .com and it came to be seen as the US domain. Outside the US, users accordingly flocked to their own country codes.

This move coincided with an attempt to shift internet governance from the relatively informal arena of US-dominated users to a more formal, intergovernmental organisation in which US and corporate dominance would be somewhat muted. The failure of this effort has been echoed in the changing uses of country code top level domains. Some of the most successful and widely used internet suffixes are country-specific domains that have been marketed out as generics by the nations that own them. Take the Polynesian island Tuvalu, for example, which spotted the potential of its .tv domain and sold it to television stations around the world.

When is a domain name not a domain?

The proliferation of generic top-level domains marks a further disassociation of the internet from the space of sovereign states. As administrators of the country code system debated on a case-by-case basis whether to include states with contested sovereignty, such as Palestine (.ps), generics started to be used as an alternative, including .asia and .cat (for Catalonia).

These two generics have operated in very different ways. Where .asia is open to anyone willing to pay the registration price, .cat requires a genuine association with Catalonia.

What they both do, however, is blur the distinction between spatial and non-spatial referents. Before Catalonia worked out that it could use a generic as though it were a country code, using a spatial referent as a domain name was largely the preserve of sovereign states. Now generics are encroaching into the realm of countries, suggesting that there is room for the internet to map onto the physical world in a way that bypasses the sovereign, territorial state.

With new domains like .scot now entering the fray, this blurring of the line continues. We are likely to see even more generic top-level domains serving as markers of territorial space. There is already talk of how .scot may influence the debate over independence from the UK and the introduction of non-Latin domains creates similar opportunities all over the world.

If the internet represents the world’s future, then it is one in which spatial variation will continue to prevail, but in which state sovereignty will be increasingly tested at its margins.