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The Cyber-Sociology of Domain Names

Erica Wass is the editor and contributing author of the recently published book, "Addressing the World: National Identity and Internet Country Code Domains”, (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2003). This book is an edited collection of original essays by domain name administrators, academics, journalists and lawyers that examine the connections between various cultures and the use and regulation of their country code domain names. CircleID recently caught up with Erica Wass to gain a better insight into the work behind this book. What follows is the first article of a three-part series where Erica shares her insight and discoveries that lead her to a sophisticated global perspective on "Addressing the world". She begins by examining cyber-sociology of ccTLDs — the underlying theme of the book.

I love the Internet. I am enamored with the fact that I can learn and communicate with those ten miles away and ten time zones away with the ease of flipping a switch. It is this access to information — this invisible doorway into learning about others' interests and lives — that intrigues me at every keystroke.

Despite being an avid Internet user and producer of websites, it was only a few years ago that I first became aware of country code domains. Like many Internet users, I had seen .uk and .de addresses, and I recognized that some American schools used the strange looking k12.city.state.us addresses. Still, despite my enthusiasm for learning about the Internet and having typed these endings, I did not fully understand the scope and structure of the Domain Name System.

It was only in the late-1990s, when I read some articles about catchy codes being marketed to the world, that I was truly driven to examine the top-level domains. I enjoyed thinking and learning about domains other than just .com, and since that time, I have had a multi-dimensional interest in country code top-level domains (ccTLDs).

In researching not only the history and politics of the codes as a whole, but also how the individual codes have developed in relation to one another, I have been able to learn about the Internet technology and history as well as those people who, like myself, connect with it. I was curious about the intersection between the technology, the politics and local cultures. In essence, I have sought to examine the cyber-sociology of country code domain names.

I have discovered that through the use of country code Internet domain name endings, the domain name system has gained the power to effect social change and incorporate national identities and priorities. It has, in the process, evolved into more than a technological convention; it has become a means of communicating cultural values.

The culmination of this research is "Addressing the World: National Identity and Internet Country Code Domains," (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2003) an edited collection of original essays by domain name administrators, academics, journalists and lawyers that examine the connections between various cultures and the use and regulation of their country code domain names.

While space is short, the examples are many. In fact, a look at the history and development, or perhaps lack of development, of almost every code can provide an entryway into a people, a history, a culture and often, a national identity. To demonstrate the variety of ways in which the use and governance of the codes intersect with national cultures "Addressing the World" looks at 11 of the 240 codes: East Timor's .tp, Chile's .cl, India's .in, Malaysia's .my, Sweden's .se, Niue's .nu, Moldova's .md, Swaziland's .sz, China's .cn, the United States' .us and Australia's .au.
Just as American television's best-known ZIP code "90210" became synonymous with the rich Beverly Hills lifestyle, country code domain names have begun to take on more political and social meaning. For example, many codes have been used to:

Raise money - See, for example the open registration policies of Micronesia's .fm at www.dot.fm, Armenia's .am at www.dot.am, Tuvalu's .tv at www.tv/ and Niue's .nu at www.nu/ (each accessed October 19, 2003)

Launch political protests - See for example the histories of East Timor's .tp at Freedom.tp at www.freedom.tp/ (accessed October 19, 2003); Stewart Taggart, "Irish Eyes Smile on Dot-TP," WiredNews, March 8, 2003 (accessed October 19, 2003) cited in Martin Maguire, "East Timor's .TP: From a Virtual Initiative to a Political Reality," Addressing the World, Chapter 2.; See, also the history of Palestine's .ps recounted in Oscar S. Cisneros, "Dot-PS: Domain Without a Country," WiredNews, Jan. 12, 2001, (accessed October 19, 2003) and "IANA Report on Request for Delegation of the .ps Top-Level Domain," IANA, March 22, 2000, (accessed October 19, 2003).

Increase cultural knowledge and awareness - See, for example Swaziland's .sz, Sweden's .se at www.nic.se and France's .fr at www.nic.fr.

While the individual code analysis is fascinating at its very core, it is the analysis for determining the cultural influences on the use and regulation of the ccTLDs that is, perhaps, more instructive. With more than 240 codes one individual cannot accomplish the task of examining and tracing the cultural connections to each code's use and governance. "Addressing the World" is a starting point to what I hope will become an important element of the field of cyber-sociology.

As such, there are four main areas where a nation's history and culture have affected the development of the name space. The first is in the historical acceptance of the code. Answering the question, "When was the ccTLD first introduced and first used?" shows not only where the code lies in comparison with its peers but also at what point the nation joined the larger global Internet community and the .com era overall.

The second indicator comes in the decisions regarding the structure of the name space. The specific question to ask is, Are registrants allowed to register directly under the ccTLD, or Are they required to register under a number of second-, third-, or fourth-level domains?

The third indicator, the largest in scope, is the rule-making process. There are many questions to ask when examining a ccTLD's rules: Is the domain open, registerable by anyone, or closed, reserved to those with a presence in the host nation? Is the registration system one of prior assessment where registrants are required to submit supporting documents proving they are entitled to the domain, or can one register a domain quickly without such paperwork? How much does it cost to register a domain? Is the cost prohibitive for use by the local population, or is it low enough to encourage local use? Can individuals register a domain, or is the process open only to organizations? Are there guidelines as to what domains can be registered within the names? Are some words forbidden? Is there a dispute resolution policy, and if so, whom does it favor?

While the rules put into place initially are useful to determine early interests and norms, it is their development over time that is truly illustrative of the interplay between larger cultural priorities and the name space. Therefore, changes in the policies must be closely examined; the often-complicated reform processes are not made casually, but for a reason. It is the reason that motivates the change.

The fourth indicator is demonstrated by the nature of the content located in the code's name space and the popularity of the name space among the people. Questions to ask, when viewing sites in the name space and examining registration statistics are: Is the society in question generally seen as restrictive or open? Keeping the answer in mind, what types of content are hosted in the name space, and conversely, what is missing? Based on that information is the name space popular? If so, with whom and how does this reflect the economic and social priorities of the host nation?

In these days when technology moves so quickly it is not enough to say that a ccTLD has open registration policies and heavy government involvement, or that it has a layered domain name structure and is unpopular with the locals. We must ask and at least partially answer the question, "Why?" It is the why that informs. Tracing a code's technological and cultural influences by looking at its history, policies and structure provides a greater indication of its place within the larger society. In doing so we learn not only about Internet history, but also the cyber-sociology that connects disparate nations and their peoples.

By Erica Wass, Journalist & Attorney

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