Always looking for an excuse to escape the office and learn a bit more about domain names, I headed into central London yesterday afternoon for an event run by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).
Titled What’s in a name? The History and Future of the Domain Name System, it was held at the swanky Royal Society complete with lots of marble, ornate ceilings and pictures of scientific luminaries dotting the walls.
The seminar commemorated the 25-year history of the Domain Name System (DNS), as well as looking at its 10-year management by ICANN.
The Domain Name System is like the internet’s phone book – it translates human-friendly web addresses, like www.123-reg.co.uk, into codes computers can understand, like 188.8.131.52. It’s no exaggeration to say that without it, the internet as we know it today wouldn’t exist.
The event was chaired by Markus Kummer, Head of the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Secretariat and the speakers were:
- Paul Mockapetris. Along with Jon Postel, who’s sadly no longer with us, Paul invented the Domain Name System. He looked back at the early days of DNS, saying that back in 1983 when the system was first mooted, it “wasn’t seen as an important thing”. That seems incredible when you consider that today we wouldn’t be able to find anything online without it – just a single page from a social networking site like MySpace can quite easily generate 120 – 240 DNS requests.
- Lynn St. Amour. President of the Internet Society (ISOC), Lynn talked more about the future of DNS. One of the key challenges she sees ahead is ensuring “that policy goals and technical realities are not considered in isolation from each other”. She reckons that although the issues around DNS are becoming more politicised, “the technical community must remain an engaged, key participant.”
- Mike Roberts. The first president of ICANN, Mike is today a consultant on internet policy. He brought some end-user perspective to the group, pointing out that “we do name resolution 20 billion times a day, and hardly anyone notices that it even happens.” And he thinks the average internet user wants it for “DNS to just work”.
- Edmund Chung, CEO of the DotAsia Organisation and Vice Chair of the Internet Society Hong Kong. “We have so many TLDs,” he said, “are there so many people who want to continue to buy them?” (TLDs are top level domains – like .com, .net or .org.) And he sees one possible future where corporations start buying up hundreds or even thousands of domain names in an effort to “increase their own footprint” online.
- Dennis Jennings. Although a member of the ICANN board, he wasn’t speaking on the board’s behalf. He talked about the issues he’s been trying to get to grips with, including whether corporations should be allowed to register domains ending in .theirname in future, and how internationalised domain names (domains which don’t use the Latin alphabet) will work in practice. He ended on a lighthearted note, saying “I do have views, but they’re probably wrong.”
- Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute. He gave an entertaining presentation about the history of DNS. But what really stayed with me were his thoughts on how the internet came to be. “I come from the perspective,” he said, “that the internet is absurd. It works in practice, but not in theory.” He explained that the way the whole thing was created was “not how you’re supposed to design a network, but it’s how the internet works.” Jonathan’s blog can be found here.
In all, it was an interesting way to spend the afternoon. A full webcast of the event was promised, but I haven’t been able to track down the video yet. I suspect it will appear on the OII site at some point, but once I find it, we’ll link to it from here. You can now watch the presentations from the event here on the OII website.
Were you there? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.