How ICANN is changing website domain names forever

Feature-icann-200Forget “.com” – your next domain name could end with “.melbourne”, “.??”, or even “.transformers”.

The internet is about to expand massively with up to 2,000 new “top level domains” (TLDs) being added to the familiar “.com” and “.au”.

But just how does internet naming work? Who allocates those names? And how is the naming system expanding to support international characters in domain names?

Identification basics

In communication systems such as the internet, it is important to be able to identify who (or what) you wish to communicate with.

For efficiency, the machines (computers, switches etc) that make up the internet use numerical, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses such as

But such numbers aren’t particularly “friendly” for human use, so the internet adds an extra system that allows names such as and translates those into the addresses used within the internet.

The naming system is hierarchical, in that is one part of the “domain” of names, which is in turn one part of the .com name space.

Suffixes such as “.com”, “.org” and others are called top-level domains because other domains, such as, are subordinate to them in the hierarchy.

What’s in a name?

Originally, internet names and addresses were administered centrally and manually by Jon Postel of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a self-organised group of volunteers interested in the operation of the internet.

The IETF operated on the principle of “rough consensus and running code”, meaning that decisions were collectively made without formal voting, and favoured technologies that had been demonstrated to work.

Names were allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, and used only English characters from the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII code) which was most commonly used by computers of the time.

By 1990, the administration task grew sufficiently to justify forming an Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) for the task which was funded by the US government as part of broader support for internet development.

IANA controlled the TLDs, but delegated administration of subdomains to companies known as registries. For example, Network Solutions was delegated the .com domain, and would charge organisations for the right to use a domain name.

Introducing ICANN

As the internet expanded in the 1990s, the US government recognised the need to promote competition between registry services and to internationalise administration of the internet, and so established the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to subsume the role of IANA.

Above: Peter Dengate Thrush, ICANN Chairman

ICANN is a nonprofit organisation, and receives funding from supplying internet identifiers. For example, it currently gets about 20 cents each year for each .com domain name.

It is managed by 16-member board of directors drawn from around the world, with Australian participants including Bruce Tonkin who is currently vice-chair of the board, and Paul Twomey who was CEO from 2003 to 2009.

While the United Nations might seem to be a natural neutral administrator of internet identifiers, it has not been needed because of the international basis of ICANN and because historically the internet has developed in parallel to telephone and broadcast television/radio systems that are the focus of the UN’s telecommunications agency, the ITU.

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