An important debate is taking place over the future of the Internet, which will have important implications for every person who uses it. It involves the creation of top-level domain names (TLDs). These are the suffixes like ".com," ".org" and ".net" that we type at the end of all Internet addresses. They are like area codes in telephone numbers that route our phone calls to one unique telephone.
Area codes also allow the same seven-digit phone number to be used in different parts of the country. Similarly, different TLDs would allow certain popular domain names to be reused. Since people have been known to pay millions of dollars for particular domain names that are thought to have commercial uses, expansion of the potential supply of such names clearly has important consequences for many businesses.
New area codes are doled out by an organization called the North American Numbering Council. Historically, this was just a matter of making sure that the same three-digit number was only used once. It became more complicated with the advent of toll-free "800" numbers, which businesses often personalized. For example, a popular way to buy flowers is by dialing 1-800-FLOWERS. Such numbers obviously have economic value in and of themselves, just as certain Internet addresses do.
The Internet equivalent of area codes is assigned by a non-profit group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. It has been embroiled in a controversy for some time over the creation of new TLDs. Critics complain that ICANN has been too slow in creating new ones, although it has just recently established two new TLDs, ".biz" and ".info." However, some entrepreneurs are trying to go around the ICANN process and create their own TLDs. One has established a whole list of new ones, including ".arts," ".law" and ".church," among others.
The problem, of course, is that if someone buys a domain name with one of these renegade TLDs, there is no assurance that anyone will be able to find it. It would be like making up a new area code for yourself. If someone dials the number, it isn't going to go through. So, too, with unofficial TLDs. Unless the Internet is set up to allow their use, your computer cannot be routed through it to the website you wish to access.
Eventually, this problem will be resolved. It is really just the latest step in the evolution of standards -- a process that has been going on for thousands of years. In earlier times, there was no generally agreed-upon system of weights and measures. It took many, many years before concepts like the "foot" and "pound" became standardized, so that a pound of something anywhere had the same weight. Even so, there continue to be exceptions. If one buys a gallon of gasoline in Canada, you will get 5 quarts, instead of the 4 quarts one gets here.
Weights and measures are only the most obvious form of standardization. Think about light bulbs. Wouldn't it be a real mess if ordinary 100-watt bulbs and light fixtures came in a variety of sizes? It is hard enough to find the right bulb when one burns out now. If one had to keep several different sizes around for different sockets, it would greatly increase the cost of lighting.
We take such standardization for granted in a great many areas of our life, from common shoe and dress sizes to electrical equipment that all runs on the same voltage. But this is really a very recent phenomenon. Historically, almost everything people bought was made to order. It was Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, who really got standardization in industry off the ground. He was first to produce machines with interchangeable parts, which greatly lowered costs by facilitating manufacture and repair.
Around the turn of the century, a number of private organizations were founded to promote engineering and other standards throughout industry. There are now about 400 such organizations in the United States alone, and another 600 worldwide. Thousands of people participate in technical committees that help establish conformity, universality and quality standards that have led to improved safety, convenience and lower costs for just about every product one can think of.
Now the Internet is going through its own standardization process. It may seem slow, but it is worth remembering that the current domain name system was only created by Jon Postel in 1984. So it is hardly surprising that it has growing pains. Consumers and businesses will save themselves a lot of money and grief if they allow the established global process for organizing the Internet to work itself out. Otherwise, you could find yourself paying good money for a domain name that no one can access.