Is time running out for internet domains?

The world’s political leaders are taking an unusually intent interest in the technical system of Internet domains’ naming and numbering (the DNS).

The world’s political leaders are taking an unusually intent interest in the technical system of internet domains’ naming and numbering (the DNS).  Governments have become increasingly sensitive to the importance of the internet’s architecture as its criticality for the economy has grown over the past fifteen years.

The recent upsurge in interest has been apparent around meetings of ICANN, the US-based body governing the DNS, as well as this month’s UK international conference on cyberspace addressed by prime minister David Cameron, foreign secretary William Hague, and Jo Biden, US Vice-President.

Domain name changes will impact businesses costs

The DNS, which underpins and structures internet activity, will be transformed over the coming years, with major implications for how companies can develop online operations, the cost and regulation of business, and how the system as a whole is governed. 

Governments have become increasingly sensitive to the importance of the internet’s architecture

The drivers of change are technological, demographic, cultural and political: rising demand in dynamically developing countries, especially amongst billions of Chinese and Indians; the growth of embedded domains in intelligently networked products and infrastructures; and, from next year, the expansion of top level domains (TLDs) from the limited range of today, to almost any dot-able title, including non-Western scripts.

For well positioned companies, this expansion potentially provides a massive impetus to innovation in enlarged, international, web-based service markets in place of – and possibly at the expense of - traditional national ones.  This has been highlighted most in relation to trademarks, where internet registrars are positioned to challenge traditional trademark holders. The end result will be determined by how the system is governed - and this has yet to be concluded.

Top level domain names are running out rapidly 

Current growth in TLDs is globally high but uneven. National TLDs (such as .uk) are often increasing faster than generic ones such as .com or .org.  Significant differences also exist between regions, with Asia-Pacific growing fastest.  But the overall supply of existing TLDs (IPv4 generation) is rapidly running out and are expected to be fully allocated by the end of 2012.

As a result, IPv6 is being introduced - mainly to network operators, though the step change will be when this becomes extensive amongst businesses and end users. The Chinese are racing to introduce downstream IPv6 applications through their latest national modernisation programme; elsewhere, introduction is patchy and un-systematic.

Political tension

IPv6 illustrates a broader political tension. Competitive market economies with pluralist and democratic political systems - such as the Netherlands, Brazil, India, Norway and South Africa - are portrayed by some commentators as in a Stalinist North Korean and Chinese communist camp because they believe governments need to have a greater capacity to determine events. 

Nowadays even developed countries find they lack the means to fully grasp all the implications of the changing DNS system – leading to political uncertainty and polarization that undermine investment clarity for many businesses.

The choice should not be between supporting crude Chinese-type state control or a Wild West favouring the US, but, as David Cameron has said, “freedom, not a free-for-all”.

The trouble is that no alternative has really been articulated.  The US portrays the Government Advisory Committee to ICANN (GAC), which it dominates as it does the wider organisation, as offering an effective means for government dialogue within a multi-stakeholder system. 

Cynical ploy or lack of vision ?

Yet GAC participation is limited, slow moving and sometimes shambolic, its “advice” often lightweight and ignored by the ICANN Board.  In the absence of Washington’s support, attempts to streamline its operations and create deeper engagement with other ICANN stakeholder groups are held back by a part-time chair.

It’s hard to say whether this is a cynical US ploy to maintain a system and culture favouring itself, or a lack of long-term, wider-world vision, of which the Obama administration is often accused.  

Certainly, few other countries are as resolutely future-facing world leadership contenders as either the Chinese or US.  But if a broad range of countries are to benefit from the potentially momentous changes about to occur, they need a deeper and more compelling model of multi-stakeholder engagement, urgently.


The views expressed in this article are purely personal ones of the author and do not represent those of any organisation.

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