OK, so you run the DNS, now what?

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Say for the sake of argument that the EU/ITU/UN manage to convince the US to give up "control of the Internet", or at least the part of DNS that ICANN controls. Furthermore, assume that they get the root servers to go with them, so that in principle they can do whatever they want. How should we expect things to be different?

As I indicated earlier, there are two major types of top level domains, the country code TLDs (ccTLDs) and the generic TLDs (gTLDs). Policies for the ccTLDs are pretty clear, so except for the occasional dispute about who should operate a given ccTLD, things shouldn't change much.

That leaves us with the gTLDs, which is where all the controversy is. As far as I can tell, there are three issues that are generally regarded as controversial:

  • Who should operate the existing gTLDs?
  • Under what terms should new gTLDs be created?
  • What policies should gTLD operators use to determine who gets what second level domains (e.g., who gets amazon.com)?

Who should operate the existing gTLDs?
The original seven gTLDs are .com, .edu, .gov, .int, .mil, .net, and .org. Of these, .edu, .gov, .int, and .mil are restricted (this is already a point of contention because .gov and .mil are reserved for US entities, which doesn't sit well with foreigners. It's a legacy from when the Internet was the ARPANET). Until 2001 or 2002 if you wanted to use a gTLD you had to use .com, .org, or .net. In 2001 and 2002, seven more gTLDs were added: .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro. The new seven were added by ICANN so there isn't too much controversy over who should operate them. Rather, the controversy is over who should operate the big three legacy gTLDs: .com, .net, and .org, with the elephant in the room being .com.

The reason that it's attractive to operate a gTLD is simply that it allows the operator to extract monopoly rents for each registration. If you want a domain in .com or .net you have to pay Verisign (or pay someone who does) If you want a domain in .org, you have to pay the Public Interest Registry (or, again, pay someone who does). As you'd expect, this produces quite a bit of rent seeking, and ICANN's recent decision to let VeriSign retain .net resulted in quite a bit of complaining from the other bidders.

So, there's certainly some possibility that an ICANN replacement would reassign the existing gTLDs to someone else. While this is of enormous interest to the existing gTLD operators--or those hoping to supplant them--it would have practically no effect on end-users except perhaps to make the registration fees change a bit.

Under what terms should new gTLDs be created?
Another controversial question is what (if any) new gTLDs should be created. Many complain that ICANN is creating too few new gTLDs. Others complain it's creating too many. Indeed, the US government stopping ICANN from creating .xxx (for pornography) was part of what touched off this latest round of angst.

Realistically, though, this isn't really of much consequence to users either because overwhelming users want to be in .com, .net, or .org. The following table shows the number of hosts found by the ISC domain name survey in all the gTLDs:


All of the new gTLDs put together only report 80,000 or so hosts names1, which is about .1% of those found in .com and about .05% of those found in .net. For comparison, the Dominican Republic (.do) has more hosts (81598) than all the new gTLDs put together. The obvious conclusion to draw here is that new gTLDs aren't very important. As a sanity check, ask yourself the last time you dealt with a web site that used one of the new gTLDs (as opposed to one of the generic ccTLDs like .tv or .to).

What policies should gTLD operators use to determine who gets what second level domains?
In the past, a lot of the displeasure with ICANN has been directed at its procedures for determining who gets which domain name (the famous Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy). Much of the criticism has focused on the claim that ICANN is too friendly towards trademark holders in these disputes. I haven't investigated this thoroughly enough to have an opinion, but it's not at all clear to me that a procedure operated by the UN, EU, or ITU would be any less friendly towards big corporations.

1. Note that this survey works by doing reverse name lookups so it disfavors names that don't correspond to unique IPs. These mostly correspond to organizations too small to operate their own Web server. Thus, the survey tends to somewhat favor bigger organizations. Still, even if it were off by an order of magnitude the results would be striking. Note that this methodology is probably why .net is so much more popular than .com in this survey: a lot of dynamically assigned IP addresses (for clients) don't correspond to real host names and just reverse resolve to something like

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.edu reserved for US institutions? I think not - my French alma mater is available as www.polytechnique.edu.

.edu is restricted to educational institutions. .gov and .mil are restricted to US entities. I think the parentheses up there say that....

I have no idea who came up with ".museum", but I'm pretty confident it was the kind of person who lobbied for it until it was approved just to make him shut up.

Doesn't work--I tried it with ".cheeseshop".

The problem with the new gTLDs is that they are putting information that should be in the domain name in the domain - the TLD creates a block of unique names with a particular classification attached, and really the domain name you put in front of .uk or .org should tell the user that you're a museum. For a quick reductio ad absurdum, imagine how bad it will get when I persuade ICANN to create .alexharrowell...

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