What's in a Name?

Internet URL's Spark Lawsuits, Controversies, Leaving An Unclear Future

What's in a domain name?

As the Internet has evolved from a U.S. defense research project to an international commercial marketplace, the naming conventions it has inherited have left it mired in a host of controversies and lawsuits, and the future of names on the Internet is by no means certain.

Communication in any form requires cooperation, but on computer networks the need to agree on common rules of communication is paramount.

As the Internet developed out of military and academic networks, a system of numeric "IP addresses" emerged which uniquely identified computers.

"Sometime along this protocol development, this concept of domain names [surfaced]. Before that, people referred to the IP address directly," says Scott O. Bradner, a technical consultant for University Information Services.


Domain names, such as "" and "" are uniquely linked to the numerical addresses which identify computers and the Web sites and other services they host. No two computers can share the same domain name.

Like 800 numbers, domain names have become valuable advertising resources, and the assignment of domain names is at the center of a growing controversy over intellectual property.

"The [responsibility] of making sure that an assignment is unique was taken up by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority [IANA]," Bradner says.

IANA administrates top-level domains (TLDs), the right-most portion of an Internet domain name. Each TLD, such as .com, .us and .edu, is assigned to a unique organization, which can subsequently assign lower-level domain names.

This system of naming computers transcends political and geographic boundaries, leading to a lack of clear sovereignty in setting policy for the domains.

The largest TLD, and therefore the most highly-disputed, is the .com domain administered by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) along with .edu, .net and several other international TLDs.

In 1992, the NSF delegated responsibility for its TLDs to Network Solutions Inc. (NSI) after a public bidding process. NSI agreed to register new domain names in a database that links the names to the IP addresses of their corresponding computers.

It is this database which directs Web-browsers and other Internet applications to the computer associated with a domain name.

According to NSI CEO Gabriel A. Battista's testimony before the House Judiciary Committe's Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property on Nov. 5, this task involved the registration of 200 new domain names per month in 1995.

Today, this volume has soared to 125,000 registrations per month, primarily in the .com domain. And with this growth on the Internet, NSI faces a host of legal quandaries which have precipitated Congressional hearings.

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