This year marks the 30th anniversary of Australian domain names – websites ending in .au. As of June this year, more than three million such domains have been registered. This is a lot for a country of only 24 million people, but especially notable when you think there were only a few hundred thousand domain names as recently as 2002.
This explosion in registrations is the result of the constant evolution of our system – changes that have not only opened domains up to more and more people, but will set us up for the fourth decade of Australian websites.
It began with one man
The story of .au, Australia’s Top Level Domain (TLD), really began in March 1986. It was then that University of Melbourne network administrator, Kevin Robert Elz – known to most as Robert Elz – was given authority to administer Australian domain name registration. Elz set the rules for the system and held this authority from 1986 through the 1990s.
There were a couple of different phases during Elz’s tenure. The first 10 years were marked by slow growth and informal management. But from 1996 there was a boom in demand as the internet rapidly became a central part of our lives and businesses jumped on board.
1996 was the beginning of the commercial domain name industry in Australia. The boom in demand for Australian domain names led Elz to delegate responsibility for Australian second-level domains (2LDs). In her book on the domain name registration system, academic and lawyer Jenny Ng writes:
In October 1996 Elz granted a five-year licence to administer com.au to his employer, the University of Melbourne through Melbourne IT Ltd.
After this, registering a domain was no longer free.
A formal system
As commercial players moved in, more formal management of the Australian domain name system (DNS) was established. In 1997 the Australian Domain Name Administration (ADNA) was created, and in April 1999 its role was transferred to the .au Domain Administration (auDA).
In December 2000 the Australian Government formally endorsed auDA as the appropriate body to hold the delegation of authority for .au. In 2002, new policies and a new registry, operated by AusRegistry, came into operation. With this, the contemporary Australian domain name system (DNS) came into being.
Reliable data are not available for the early years, but when the first registry was launched in 2002, there were 282,632 domains, which grew to 500,000 domain names in 2005, and 710,428 on June 30, 2006. We surpassed a million domains registered by 2007 and three million in 2016; about 87% of these are .com.au.
This growth was facilitated by relaxation of the previous rules as a result of successive policy review panels.
Evolution of Australian policy
Domain name policies during the first 10-15 years reflected the beliefs and assumptions of the internet’s pioneers. One guiding principle was that no one should be able to gain an undeserved advantage over other participants. So it was only possible for a registrant to register one domain name, and it was not possible to register a generic term (such as a common noun) or a place name. The principle of “first come, first served” was enshrined; there was no hierarchy of entitlement to a particular name.
Since the first formal policy was developed and implemented in 2002, most of these restrictions have been abolished, and the Australian DNS has followed the path of evolution in other countries, albeit more slowly.
Some fundamental principles remain: first come, first served; the requirement that the registrant for an Australian domain name must be Australian; provisions to reduce abusive practices; and a requirement for a link between the registrant and the name registered. As a result, the Australian DNS is regarded as relatively well-administered, trusted and stable. But we aren’t done yet.
Direct registration: the next step
In August 2015 I wrote about the work of the 2015 Name Panel established by auDA to review domain name policy and propose changes to the board of auDA. Policy change proposals are adopted by a consensus of each panel, and the panels must be broadly representative of the industry and domain name users.
The panel made one major recommendation: in addition to registering second-level domains (like .com.au, .edu.au, and .net.au), Australians should also be able to register directly (such as example.au). Both the UK and New Zealand have already made this change.
The final report of the panel was presented to the auDA Board in December 2015. The Names Policy 2015 website includes the text of all non-confidential submissions, panel minutes, and other panel documents; there was also a minority report by four of the 23 panel members.
Against this backdrop, auDA will soon consider the best way to manage one of its largest policy changes. This is the move from the strict hierarchy of names which has prevailed for 30 years using a TLD and 2LDs, to a dual system which permits both direct and second-level registrations. The changes will set a direction for the fourth decade of .au.