On March 1, VeriSign, Inc., the parent of VeriSign GRS (Global Registry Services), announced an agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN; http://www.icann.org/melbourne/proposed-verisign-agreements-topic.htm) that will redefine VeriSign's role as an Internet registrar and registry.
In order to understand the VeriSign news, some background information is needed. Internet registrars are those companies that accept applications for and maintain domain-name accounts. Registrars must first seek ICANN accreditation, after which they can deliver registration services on specified gTLDs (generic top-level domains) and ccTLDs (country-code top-level domains). VeriSign provides registrar services on the .com, .org, and .net gTLDs and on the .tv ccTLD. .tv is the ccTLD for Tuvalu, an island group in the South Pacific and one of a number of countries selling their ccTLDs as a "domain name of convenience"—i.e., ccTLDs that have interesting abbreviations and are often registered to anyone, anywhere. Tuvalu's ccTLD is thought to be valuable because television-related organizations would benefit from using the .tv suffix.
Registries are, in a way, domain-name wholesalers. They provide Internet protocol (IP) addressing, resolution, and distribution services for the TLDs they manage. The system really consists of a set of IP numbers. The alphanumeric domain names (like www.infotoday.com) are associated through translation or resolution services provided to the registries. More than one domain name can be associated with the same IP number. Similarly, domain names can be reassociated with new IP numbers. In a way, domain names are artificial mnemonics—created as a convenience—that have been reified into concrete property.
VeriSign GRS is the sole registrar for the .com, .org, and .net TLDs. The U.S. Department of Defense's Network Information Center (NIC) operates the .mil gTLD, the Government Services Administration operates .gov and .fed.us, and Network Solutions is in charge of .edu. Individual countries have registration responsibilities for their own ccTLDs (for a list, see http://www.iana.org/cctld/cctld-whois.htm). There are three regional registries to manage the ccTLD space: APNIC (http://www.apnic.net), ARIN (http://www.arin.net), and RIPE (http://www.ripe.net).
Remember that, once upon a time, .com, .org, .net, and the ccTLDs all meant something unique. The ccTLDs were reserved for domain names with a tie to the country they were registered in. For the most part, they still do. But that has eroded with the encroachment of domain names of convenience. The .org and .net gTLDs have also been diluted by commercial registrations. The .org gTLD was originally designed for not-for-profit groups, while .net was to be reserved for network or Internet entities.
Under its original 1999 agreement with ICANN, VeriSign was required to give up either its registration or registry functions. This was done so that VeriSign could retain its .com, .org, and .net registration functions into 2007—4 years longer than earlier agreements. Under the new agreement, VeriSign will now operate the .com registry until 2007 and .net until 2006. It will revert the .org gTLD to its original purpose—the registration of not for profits—after December 2002. VeriSign will also be allowed to retain both its registry and registrar status—hence, the advantage of the new proposal to VeriSign. It's as yet unclear if commercial entities that have registered under .org will have to divest themselves of the gTLD or whether they will be grandfathered into the new system.
The "loss" of .org as a commercial gTLD is probably of less consequence than it might have been 6 months ago. ICANN recently announced seven new gTLDs, four unsponsored—.biz, .info, .name, and .pro—and three sponsored—.aero, .coop, and .museum. At least three of the four unsponsored gTLDs—.biz, .info, and .pro—and two of the sponsored gTLDs—.aero and .coop are surrogates for .com and can absorb more than what went into .org.
These new gTLDs added to the potential for additional top-level domains mean that VeriSign's virtual control over the business domain is weakening quickly. Two initiatives may further erode the VeriSign position and perhaps even the dominance of the .com gTLD. The first is to develop domain names written with non-Roman characters. Chinese-language registries and registrars have been proposed. Can Japanese, Arabic, Cyrillic, and other "character sets" be far behind? The second is the European Commission's idea for a .eu TLD. Although the national ccTLDs may once have lost their cachet, the introduction of domain names of convenience, the proposed non-Roman domain names, and super-regional domain names like .eu may rekindle the market for them and other less-"global" TLDs. The addition of new language sets may have another similar effect. It will force those of us who are unfamiliar with the world's many languages—and are unwilling to muddle through Unicode—to adopt IP number addressing (rather than domain names) in order to access Web sites and send e-mail addressed with unfamiliar character sets. That may wean some of us away from domain names and toward a more general acceptance of IP numbers as Internet addresses.
The good news is that with the redefinition of the .org gTLD and with the seven new gTLDs, maybe, just maybe, top-level domains can again be thought to provide some classification and indexing of Internet content.
One caveat: Neither the seven new domain names nor the ICANN/VeriSign agreement are final. ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce must approve. Given that ICANN has been criticized in a number of places, including the U.S. Congress, nothing is certain.