The History of Domains


What’s In a Name: The History of Domains

With the widespread use of the Internet, domain names are commonly recognized. People bookmark their favorite sites, and everyone knows the domain names they frequent most by heart. In this way, domain names are understood instinctually by most people. They are names for websites, an address that connects one computer with information on another.

While this is a basic understanding of domain names, there is a bit more to them than that. Domain names are unique identification codes that let one computer get access to another. The idea of the domain name began in the 1960s, when computers started interacting on Wide Area Networks, also known as WANs. As more computers were linked in such networks, there needed to be a way to make such identification easier, which is why Internet Protocol addresses, also known as IPs, were assigned. However, as usage continued to expand, these numerical identification codes were eventually traded for easier to use domain names that resemble what people use today.

This transition was pioneered at the University of Wisconsin, where the term “name server” was coined in 1984. With a name server, it was no longer necessary to know an exact IP address in order to access the data on another computer. Shortly after this, domain names were further standardized with the creation of top-level domain names. This includes the tags commonly recognized today, such as .com, .org and .net.

While these shifts were significant, they did not widely impact common users. After all, the Internet did not become commonly used by the public until the 1990s, which is when domain names first became commercially available. This expanded applicability is why most of the regulation of domain names occurred in this decade.

Early on, domain names were free to register with the National Science Foundation. However, as the demand became more significant, more regulation was needed, which is why InterNIC was created. This group took over all registration responsibilities by 1995. This is also when registration of a domain name came with a $100 fee to offset organizational costs. Domain name registration became increasingly standardized in 1998, when governmental control was transferred to private organizations. This both limited governmental costs while promoting competition in the market place.

When this transition occurred, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers was established. Commonly known as ICANN, this non-profit group was intended to help oversee the industry. ICANN is now responsible for accreditation procedures with the Shared Registration System. In order to register a domain name, ICANN must be able to confirm administrative contact, which includes records and contact information for the person registering the name.

This oversight is increasingly necessary as domain names continue to grow in number. In 1992, not even 15,000 domain names had been registered. By 2009, there were over 192 million domain names registered. As the Internet continues to expand, competition for the best domain names becomes increasingly relevant. It has also led to heightened regulation, such as the 2003 Truth in Domain Names Act. This act made it illegal to create domain names with the intent of misdirecting users to malicious or pornographic sites. It is also illegal to register malicious sites based on typos of other registered domain names.

Modern domain names have become increasingly complex, not in the names themselves but in the way they function. Now, domain names may not direct users toward a single computer but multiple IP addresses. This tactic is used by domains with a lot of traffic in order to better support usage. It is also possible for several domain names to rely on the same IP address, which is how virtual web hosting works.

Obviously, domain names have evolved naturally as widespread use of the Internet has expanded. Looking back, it is easy to chart the growth of domain names. Looking forward, however, it is clear that the story has really just begun.


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