Douglas Rushkoff on Sat, 23 Nov 96 03:16 MET


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nettime: Your.Name.Here. [new tld's and a revolution on the net]


Your.Name.Here
Douglas Rushkoff
(NYT Wire Service)

What's in a name?  When it comes to the Internet, more than meets the eye.
A few select companies are making millions of dollars selling official Web
site names to people and organizations around the world, and countless
others are hoping to cash in buy "prospecting" names they think someone else
might want to use in the future.

Thanks to a media artist named Paul Garrin, the arcane, limited, and easily
exploitable system by which names are assigned to web sites might soon be
coming to an end.

When you type a name, like www.cnet.com or www.levity.com/rushkoff into the
blank space on your browser and hit "return," you automatically access one
of the few sites around the world designated as a "name server."  It looks
up the text name on a long, official list of servers, and spits out a unique
set of numbers called an IP (Internet Protocol) address.  These numbers are
what allow your browser to find the appropriate place on the Internet.

In theory, the name attached to those numbers can be anything.  But in the
early days of the government-owned Internet, to keep things "simple," the
National Science Foundation and US Tax dollars supported an organization
called the Internet Network Information Center (InterNIC) in administrating
a naming system and maintaining a master list.  With its roots in military
and defense, it's no wonder the organization came up with a system of
domains like .mil (military) .com (commercial) and .edu (educational) as a
way of identifying and organizing an otherwise random naming scheme.  No,
the names don't need those identifying suffixes in order to function as
pointers to IP addresses; they just help the folks who came up with the
system identify a network's purpose.

In 1995, as the US government moved towards privatization of the Internet,
the right to administer all these names was granted to Network Solutions, a
private company (not coincidentally located inside the Washington DC
beltway).  They charge $100 to register a name according to the existing
protocol, and $50 per year after the first two years to "maintain" the name.
Its not a bad business, especially when the number of names purchased
reaches 50,000 in a single month, as it did this year.

People and servers outside the United States, who couldn't reasonably be
asked to pay a private US company for a name, must go to their own country's
registration company.  But since the US came up with the scheme, these
non-nationals must all be identified by a suffix, like .au for Australia,
and so on.  So much for a nationless network.

Neither this naming protocol nor the companies officially profiting from it
have any foundation in Internet architecture, which is why Paul Garrin
believes he can topple the system.

Go to his new site at http://namespace.autono.net and you'll find out why.
Garrin has established an alternative network of nameservers around the
world.  With a few clicks of your mouse, you can change your browser's
default nameserver to one of the servers Garrin has set up.  Now, in
addition to all the "official" names listed by the standard nameservers,
you'll be able to access web sites by any name that anyone might want to
choose for it, or pay just $20 to name your own site instantly.  (Internic
currently needs up to several weeks to conduct whatever verifications and
security checks they might feel are necessary.) My page is now listed on
Garrin's server as doug.rushkoff.

What?  No .com?  No .uk?  Exactly.  As Garrin told me last week while he was
putting the finishing touches on his revolution, "We're de-territorializing
the Internet, and bringing it back to the real ideal of virtual space with
no national borders or hierarchies."  Why should Timothy Leary need to think
of himself as a commercial site?  He needn't anymore.  Through Garrin's
nameservers, you can get to his site right now by typing Tim.Leary.  The
official domains assigned to individuals, companies, and organizations using
the Internet need no longer buttonhole them into arbitrarily assigned
categories.

Further, Garrin's new scheme all but puts the name "prospectors" out of
business.  He suggests dozens of new possible domain names, and even invites
you to think of your own.  What had been a fairly limited range of .coms and
.edus now becomes as diverse as language itself, transforming a limited
resource into an inexhaustible one.  CNN.com can now be CNN.news,
Harvard.edu can be Harvard.U, and Hustler.com can be Hustler.sex.

But wait, there's more:  Name.Space, Garrin's association of artists,
friendly hackers and media activists, might also put InterNIC out of
business.  Why pay $100 for a name with an essentially government-mandated
suffix when you can use any name you want, with or without one of those
suffixes, for just $20?  As Garrin puts it, his group has finally brought
the Internet into the realm of freemarket competition:  "We have removed the
monopoly of controlling the database of whos who on the Internet."

While Garrin certainly hopes to make a few bucks off his ingenuity, he also
hopes that others around the world will create their own alternate
nameservers, and has developed a system through which everyone -- even
InterNIC -- can update one another on all their new names.  To him this is
much more than a business.  It's an appropriation of an essentially public
space by the public who truly deserve it.  "We're shifting the naming
paradigm from militarism to democracy, and fulfilling the ideal nature of
the Internet, which is virtual space with no borders."
------------
Douglas Rushkoff
rushkoff@interport.net



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