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A History of Domain Names

The history of domain names started with just a single file. The name of this file was "hosts.txt." The late Dr. Jon Postel, a UCLA professor maintained this file while under contract to the U.S. Department of Defense. The file contained information on all the host computers connected to the ARPANET, which is what the Internet was called before it became the Internet. This information included the hostname and IP address of each host. As the number of hosts on the Internet increased, and Dr. Postel moved on to other duties, a company called SRI took on the responsibility of maintaining the file. Eventually the file became available to the public and the history of domain names was born.

To understand the history of domain names you need to understand what a domain name actually is. Domain names were created so that any computer on the Internet can track at IP address that corresponds with a particular computer hostname. Your computer needs to know another computer's IP addresses in order to send email messages and requests for web pages. A domain name is essentially the human friendly version of an IP address, using word and acronyms instead of numbers

The old system was quite primitive. Administrators who wanted to change information about their hosts would email the changes to SRI. SRI would change the hosts.txt file every few days, and administrators would periodically FTP that file from SRI's server. This system was in place for many years, until the administrative load became too great. It only took a few hundred ISP addresses to overload this archaic system.

In 1984 there was a breakthrough in the history of domain names when Paul Mockapetris (then at USC's Information Sciences Institute) designed the New Domain Name System. This DNS is the system that we still use today to map hosts and domains to IP addresses and actual machines. Under this system, DNS information is spread across the Internet. There is no one machine or center that maintains information on all host names (although Verisign which took over the duties of the NSI in 1998 comes close.) Each domain owner maintains information on his or her own hosts. A central authority keeps records on where each domain owner keeps their information.

For years the maintenance of the Internet and the Domain Name System was under the auspices of the Department of Defense. Then, in 1991, the history of domain names experienced another breakthrough when the National Science Foundation (NSF) assumed responsibility for the non-military portion of the Internet. In 1992, the NSF awarded NSI a contract for managing the registration of domain names and maintenance of domain name information. NSI has had a government-sponsored monopoly on the registration of second-level domains and what are known as the gTLDs: .com, .org, .net, and .edu. ever since. The Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA), continues to be responsible for the allocation of IP addresses.

In 1998, the NSI's contract to manage the non-military component of the Internet expired and plans were made to transform the NSI's Internet unit into a new organization. That new organization is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Representing yet another breakthrough in the history of domain names, ICANN is a not-for-profit corporation that aims to manage the domain name system and manage the servers that help implement the domain name system. The corporation was formed in reaction to two policy papers released by the U.S. Government recommending that the administration of the Internet eventually be turned over to the private sector.

In theory, no one person is the "boss" of the Internet; but there are people in charge of the physical networks that transmit data and the points where these networks connect. (There are also people in charge of the addressing system computers use to communicate with each other. It remains to be seen if the history of domain names will have any effect on how efficient and fair the Internet is when it comes to both commercial and non-profit interests and if it will remain free of the control of any government.

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