The secret history of the internet: how web domains rule the world

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The internet has evolved in remarkable ways since its inception, transforming from a directory of static web pages in the early 90s to the interactive and immersive digital landscape everybody navigates today. Amidst these monumental shifts, the Domain Name System (DNS) - a critically important backbone of the web - has undergone transformative changes of its own.

In its nascent stages, the internet was envisioned as a far more linear place than its current iteration. Until 2000, many of the websites you could visit ended in .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, .net, and .int, with all of these top-level domains inextricably tied to their owner’s function, in addition to the country code domains such as .uk and .fr. If you visited a .com, you’d see a commercial entity, with network infrastructures tied to .net domains and .org domains for those that didn’t quite fit. This is not true of the internet today, with over 1500 domains in use and .com, .net, and .org now being entirely unrestricted in who owns them, knowing the value of your domain has become more challenging for businesses in the online world.

These developments often go unrecognized, but with further change on the horizon announced by the DNS’ administrators, ICANN, it is time to take stock of just how far things have come, and consider what the service over 5 billion people use will look like in the years ahead.

How did we get here?

Prior to the 1990s, what would become the internet was predominantly restricted to academic researchers. Known as ARPANET, conceived by the U.S Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), it was designed to facilitate research collaboration among universities and government entities. However, as the project yielded substantial developments of standardized protocols to enable communication on a network of computers, such as TCP/IP, it was the catalyst to a digital revolution that has shaped nearly every aspect of modern society.

During this period, an administrative organization fulfilling technical functions for this ever-growing network was established by two scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles – John Postel and Joyce K. Reynolds. Yet as the internet was predominantly used by academic researchers, it was merely one part of a collaborative effort across universities to maintain the network.

Stuart Fuller

Domain Services Director at Com Laude

However, as access grew throughout the 90s, the demand to commercialize the network and regulate it from government increased in tow. In 1993, the National Science Foundation, a U.S. Government Agency, privatized the domain name registry, followed by the authorization of the sale of generic domain names in 1995. This resulted in widespread dissatisfaction across internet users – it signaled a concentration of power over what was previously envisioned as a decentralized system, whilst individual countries were free to develop their own rules and regulations determining the sale and usage of their specific country codes.

In response, Postel drafted a paper proposing the creation of new top-level domains, in a bid to institutionalize his organization. After it was ignored, Postel emailed eight regional root system operators instructing them to change the central server they operated within to his organization's. They complied, dividing control of internet naming between Postel and the government.

With a furious reaction from government officials, Postel reversed the decision. Subsequently, changes were issued regarding authority over these root system servers, and Postel died unexpectedly a few months later. Following this, his organization was subsumed into the newly created ICANN, designed to perform the functions of Postel’s organization. As the internet became global, this produced a renewed interest in fostering commercial competition and the number of domain names expanded dramatically.

As new demands came from how the internet was used, domain names were created to match. For example, with the introduction of internet access via mobile devices, .mobi was created, and when the Asia-Pacific region’s internet usage grew substantially, .asia was created in 2005. Large companies took notice of the value of these registered strings of characters, and in 2012 ICANN enabled businesses to apply for their own domain names. At present, 496 companies possess these, with examples ranging from .bmw for the automobile company all the way through to .sky for the television and broadband provider.

Recently, ICANN announced that there will be a second round of issuing brand names, currently penciled in for 2026, presenting new opportunities for businesses to register their own piece of internet space. And, in a sense, Postel’s vision for a decentralized internet was realized, as in 2016 ICANN ended its contract with the U.S. government and the organization transitioned to the global internet community.

Where is this all going?

Although it may be impossible to predict how the internet will be used in the future, and what structures may change to adapt, there are interesting technological developments that could be transformative. With the rise of blockchain technologies, caused by the rocketing use of cryptocurrencies, we could see a further decentralization with regard to system ownership. Instead of registering internet space with an authority consisting of a number of global stakeholders, blockchain systems can share ownership equally over every user, with potentially interesting, democratic implications for registering parts of that space.

Alternatively, with developments in metaverse technologies, we could see a new meaning applied to domain registration. As digital technologies and reality blur, this could mean staking claims over digital space on top of physical, or registering ownership over a rendered place in a virtual reality world.

An exciting future

Regardless of what the future brings, if history holds true, it will propel us toward a future where the boundaries of digital interaction are continually expanded and redefined. The evolution of the technology from an academic research tool to a fundamental part of people’s lives is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet, as these developments occur, they will undoubtedly bring new benefits in democratizing information, entertainment, and connectivity, in a way that will shape the lives of everyone.

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Stuart Fuller, Domain Services Director at Com Laude.