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Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Trip Down Domain Street

From the Tech Vault Dept.: I wrote for the online tech site c|net during its earliest days, and the piece below dates from about 1996. Almost nothing in it is still relevant, but it did prompt me to snag the domain name back then.


WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE between your Web site and the one run by, say, McDonalds? Assuming your site has animation that achieves the creative equivalent of a bunch of happy children waving from the window of a fast food restaurant, probably nothing. Except that the burger purveyor is at, while you’re probably at something like McDonalds has a unique domain name, telling the Internet’s computer system where to find the Web page. So, while having a Web site is cool, having your own domain name for that Web site is much, much cooler.

Domain names are also addresses, telling your computer where to find information on another computer. Thanks to sophisticated search engines and bookmark-laden sites like this one, it’s easier than ever to find what you’re looking for, but it also makes sense to promote yourself with a recognizable name. C|net is at, which you won’t easily forget. Good businesses know the power of words, and choose names with great care. Now you have the opportunity to put your name in there, too. As long as it isn’t McDonalds.

Registering that name is simple. A government entity called InterNIC handles the process, for a modest $50 per year. And you can search for available names for free. You can apply directly to InterNIC (, or, more easily, go through your service provider. Here are the points to consider in the process:

The Domain Name System

The Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) evolved in the early ‘80s as new networking protocols developed, making it easy to find a particular site by using a structured system of elements. Those elements are also known as a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), and consist of a protocol (http, for example, stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol), a host name (www is typical), and a domain, which has at least two elements: cnet, for example, is the domain here, while the .com suffix is a top-level domain. The end result? Another acronym! You’ve got a fully-qualified domain name (FQDN).

There are seven top-level domains in the U.S:

COM is assigned to commercial organizations that may wish to profit from a site.
EDU is for a four-year, degree-granting colleges.
GOV goes to the U.S. government agencies.
MIL identifies a U.S. Department of Defense agency.
NET identifies a network, such as an Internet Service Provider.
ORG is an organization with not-for-profit or non-profit status.
US is assigned to state and local government agencies, libraries, museums, non-EDU schools, and individuals.

Other countries use a different system, which uses a two-letter country code as the top-level domain name and often places a COM or EDU before that.

Free to Be You and US

That US top-level designation is free to individuals, but don’t expect to become A complicated hierarchical structure defines the US domain, typically affixing a state code as the next level down – making California participants show up as

Then comes the locality, usually a city or county, so in the c|net area, you could show up as Trouble is, registration still requires that you go through a service provider, so it won’t really be free.

Unless you’re part of a grade school that has its own Internet access. Then you add the subdomain K12 below the state code, and the school district below that. Here are some other subdomains you’ll find in the US designation:

CI        City government agencies
CO       County government agencies
K12      Public schools
CC       Community colleges
TEC     Technical and vocational schools
LIB       State, county, and city libraries
STATE  State government agencies
GEN     General independent entities
COG     Councils of government
MUS     Museums
DST      Districts

Alongside the state designations, just below US, are a few more:

FED    Agencies of the Federal Government
NSN    Native Sovereign Nations, used for Indian communities that cross state,
            regional, or national boundaries.
ISA      Interstate authority

Domains and Numbers

Computers don’t care about fancy names. They need numbers. And every domain name actually refers, in the bowels of the InterNIC computers, to an Internet Protocol (IP) address. You’ve probably seen them sneak by when you’ve set up a dialer. The IP address is a string of four 8-bit numbers, called a dotted octet, which looks like this: When you get a Domain Name assigned, you also get an IP address. But it’s a whole lot easier to type “” than to remember all those numbers.

The IP address actually comes from your service provider once your domain name has been registered. InterNIC allocates groups of those numbers to the various providers, so it’s not unreasonable for your service provider to charge a fee for hooking you up to an IP address. Keep in mind, though, that the domain name you register with InterNIC is yours, and can be moved to another provider.

A name that’s tied to a single IP address is a virtual domain, which is what your service provider provides for the many web pages that users maintain. But because of this relationship between names and numbers, it’s possible to get even fancier with the naming. For example, you can be assigned an alias, which is a locally-assigned domain name that shares an IP address with another domain name. It’s usually done for reasons of shorthand, so that you can access “” by typing “”

Once you have your virtual domain, you can make subdomains. So the folks at “” can signify the culinary department with “” and home entertainment with “”

In the InterNIC of Time

As more and more commercial concerns grabbed Web presences, domain naming started getting out of hand. In April 1993, InterNIC was begun as a five-year project with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), home of former CIA agents. The InterNIC (Internet Network Information Center) was originally drawn from three sources: General Atomics, which was to provide the information services, but was dropped in 1995; AT&T, which gives the Directory and Database Services from a home base in New Jersey; and Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI) which offers Registration Services from Herndon, VA. (You’ll find them at two Web addresses, respectively: and

Domain names are handled by NSI, which includes allocating those IP addresses, keeping track of contact points and providing technical support. You can also perform a free WHOIS search through NSI to find out if a domain name is already taken--the same service that some unscrupulous Internet entrepreneurs will try to charge you for. Go to, type a domain name like CNET.COM, and you’ll find, not surprisingly, that it’s registered to c|net.

As the number of name registrations exploded – it went from 18,000 .com addresses in mid-1994 up to over 82,000 a year later – InterNIC imposed a registration fee. Your first two years are $100, payable up front; you’re billed $50 a year thereafter. You service provider can take care of this for you, usually with an additional processing fee, but beware the charlatans who want to take many hundreds of dollars on top of that fee. This fee, by the way, is paid by users of domains with a top level of COM, ORG, and NET. The NSF foots the bill for EDU and GOV, while the Department of Defense pays for the MIL registrations. But US remains free ... if you qualify.

Register It!

As an ardent do-it-yourselfer, you want to nail this registration yourself. No problem. Do a WHOIS search through InterNIC ( and make sure the name isn’t taken. There’s up to a two-week lag after you apply, so if someone scooted in ahead of you, you’re out of luck (unless you’re, say, a fast food chain). Have a couple of options ready.

Stay at that WHOIS screen. You’re going to be asked for a couple of domain server IP addresses. This comes from a service provider. It doesn’t have to be the one you use. Enter a provider name in the WHOIS screen (usually something like, and, in the results screen, look for the two columns below the phrase “Domain servers in listed order.” The columns are server names and IP addresses (dotted octets). Highlight them and paste them into a word processor screen.

Go to the address Read the form, click to continue. Start by filling in your e-mail address, then go down the list and provide what you can. Remember, you’re posing as a business to rate the COM designation, so you can fudge that “administrative contact” and “technical contact” stuff. When you get down to questions 7 and 8, fill in the info you pasted to your word processor. At the end of it, hit “submit query.” This approves the form--when it passes, you get the template e-mailed back to you. It’s up to you to then e-mail it to And don’t forget to pay your $100.

Unless you’re hard-wired to the Internet, you’ll still need to hook up with a service provider, and there’s usually a small fee to get your new IP address.

First Come, Unless Billions Served

A couple of years ago, journalist Josh Quittner asked McDonald’s if they had plans to register a domain name. The burgermakers’ flak had no answer, so Quittner registered to himself, and set up a mail address of A few months later, InterNIC peremptorily yanked the name from him. McLawyers had struck.

InterNIC policy had been to grant names on a “first come, first served” basis, but trademark policy has been intruding. Not that users made it any easier: there’s been a flurry of people registering known names and then trying to sell those names to the appropriate corporations.

It won’t work. A recent InterNIC policy statement recognizes the need for corporations to protect their trademarks on the Internet, and no guarantee is made that the name you apply for – and are granted – will always be yours if a bigger, better-lawyered entity wants it.

Take the case of GlobalOne, an Albany, NY-based Internet service provider. AT&T decided it liked that name, discovered that a local provider had it, and went after it. AT&T had no trademark claim to it. They just wanted it. Got it, too, after a struggle and a financial settlement. But the AT&T attorneys pointed out that GlobalOne – now named Global2000 – would not be able to defend the name outside of the Albany area, whereas AT&T already was entrenched across the country, if not the globe.

Another notable gimme-that-name case involved former MTV vidjock Adam Curry, who registered and ran a Web page that the company didn’t seem to mind – until Curry quit in 1993 under unhappy circumstances and MTV filed a lawsuit to get back the name. Curry fought, aggressively (if arrogantly – he insisted that his case would be the “Roe v Wade” of the Internet), until early 1995 when MTV prevailed.

Quittner, too, fought back. He’d offered to the company in exchange for computer equipment to help get a grade school online, which probably provoked the company to pressure InterNIC in the first place. Caught in a dispute it never wanted to referee, InterNIC then gave the name back to Quittner, who ultimately released it to McDonald’s – after that grade school got its computer.

c|net, c. 1996

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