Domain Names Pt.1 – Top Level Domains

This is the first of a series of blog posts covering domain names.  We’ll focus here on ‘top level domain names’, as well as an overview of domain names in general.

Domain names are text strings that are used to locate resources on the internet using the Domain Name System (DNS).  For example, www.example.com is a domain name, and if you wish to visit the website at www.example.com then your web browser will look up the IP address associated with www.example.com and then connect to that IP address to display the website.

Domain names are hierarchical, that is they are composed of a series of domains separated by dots – in the example, com is the Top Level Domain (TLD), which is the ‘namespace’ encompassing all .com domain names.  The example in www.example.com is a sub-domain of com (Second Level Domain), and the www is a sub-domain of example.com.

In order for the domain name system to work, there must be an authority that is responsible for managing domains at each level.  At the top, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is in charge of managing and delegating authority for all TLDs, such as .com, .uk, .info etc.  They delegate authority for the .uk namespace to an independent, not-for-profit company called Nominet.  They in turn accredit domain registrars, such as 123-Reg or Godaddy to administer the registration and management of .uk sub-domains (example.co.uk, example.org.uk, oxford.ac.uk etc).

This means that for a fairly modest fee you can go to a registrar and buy (register) a domain name for your business (such as bluecompute.co.uk) and then start using this domain for your business website and email.  The most common TLDs that you’ll use for this are: .co.uk, .org.uk, .com, .org, .net.  The TLD that you use for your business tells people something about your business: .co.uk names are for UK companies, .com domains are for commercial interests (usually international), .org and.org.uk names can be for anything, but usually charities and non-profit organisations, and .net is now an unrestricted TLD, but was historically used by ISPs and later, amateurs.  .com and .co.uk are the most common for a UK business.

TLDs

Some businesses favour a .com name, feeling that it conveys the impression of a large, international company.  However, using a .co.uk name provides a good degree of protection for your domain name.  Since you can only register a .co.uk domain for 2 years, unscrupulous persons sometimes try to register the domain if you forget to renew it in time.  Theoretically, they can then capitalise of the goodwill and brand that you have generated, a practise known as ‘cybersquatting’.  In the UK, Nominet protects .co.uk domains with a robust disputes procedure that allows legitimate businesses to prevent others appropriating their domain names.

Domain names are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, which means that someone who was quick off the mark could have registered tesco.co.uk before Tesco did, and then attempt to profit from the name by putting a website there and expecting high levels of traffic.  Nominet have the power and the will to prevent this sort of abuse of the system by re-assigning the domain to a legitimate business that can prove trademarks, or business interest in the domain name.  The .co.uk protection is well worth having – another example is where a website designer had registered a domain for a client.  They ended up in a dispute over payment and the web designer took the domain offline, effectively holding it to ransom from the legitimate business owner.  Again, Nominet determined the legitimate owner and forcibly re-assigned control of the domain name.

For similar stories, see this BBC news article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15604222

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