Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who came up with top-level domain names like "com" and "edu," and what was the early Internet culture like?

The Internet was developed by a group of people at various universities and companies with contracts to work on the project. Decisions, policies and technical specifications were worked out informally in conversations, email, and documents called "requests for comment" (RFCs).

Many of the original developers and users of the Internet still contribute to discussions on the Internet History email list. You can gain insight into the history and also the culture of the early Internet by subscribing to the list.

For example, there was a recent discussion of the choice of the original top level domain names like "com" and "net" on the list. I have selected a few messages from that discussion to give you a sense of the way decisions were made. (The messages refer to "Jon" -- Jon Postel, one of the key Internet developers and policy makers).

This question was posted January 20, 2010:

Does anyone know why .com; .edu and .gov were chosen? I know it seems
simple, but why .com instead of something like .biz?
There were many replies, and I selected a few which help capture the process and culture:
I recall seeing those TLD names on Jon's white board at the time. I feel
quite certain that they came out of Jon's head, but were ratified by
discussions with Paul.

Bob Braden

Some years ago, Jake Feinler said that there was a persistent, non-converging
debate in the community about the TLD choices.

She asserted that there was finally some small face-to-face discussion where she
ran out of patience and declared that the choices would be com, net and org.

I have a somewhat more vague recollection of her acknowledging that the
question, then, was whetehr Jon would concur, and that he did.

Dave Crocker

perhaps the point has been made but the motivation for these TLDs was
to parse the responsibility for registration into very distinct
categories so that the work could be delegated without too much
dispute over jurisdiction but still covered the range of then-foreseen
participants in the use of the Internet system.

Vint Cerf

I don't know but it happened between April 1984 and October 1984.

In April 1984 Postel and Reynolds distributed a draft of what became RFC 920.
In that draft they used Grapevine-like naming, so ERNIE.CS.CAL.UC for a
site in the University of California system.

In October 1984, when RFC 920 came out it specified GOV, EDU, COM, MIL and
ORG. NET came later (Dick Edmiston's and my doing).

I wish I had copies of the email discussions between April '84 and October '84
but I don't. My guess is that the discussion was in NAMEDROPPERS but I
only have a very limited archive of old NAMEDROPPERS email.

Craig Partridge

Hi Bob!

I also have the feeling that Jon put the list together, since as I
recall he was the only one of us organized enough to deal with such

As to why that initial list was chosen, my recollection is that it
simply reflected the demographics of the emerging "Internet community"
at the time. There were lots of governmental entities and lots of
schools. The "rest of world" were commercial, or companies.

Plus it was likely that someone from each TLD subgroup would step up and
volunteer to be the coordinator/arbitrator of name etiquette within that
subgroup. You couldn't have a TLD unless there was someone willing to
manage it.

The nascent Internet was very US-centric, again reflecting the
demographics. Gov meant US government. Com was US companies, weighted
toward government contractors such as BBN or Linkabit - I can't recall
any non-US companies being involved until later in the game.

I think .com originally was derived from "company" rather than
"commercial". The .com's weren't thought of as "businesses" in the
sense of places that consumers go to buy things. They were companies
doing government contract work. The Internet was not chartered to
interconnect businesses - it was a military command-and-control
prototype network, being built by educational, governmental, and
contractors. If anybody had suggested that businesses were to be
included, it would have raised flotillas of red flags in the
administrative ranks of government and PTTs. Hence .com -- not .biz.

I don't recall anybody ever thinking we were creating an organizational
structure to encompass hundreds of millions of entities covering the
entire planet in support of all human activities. And it certainly
wasn't supposed to last for 30+ years, even as an experiment. It just
happened to turn out that way.

IIRC, there weren't any major debates or counterproposals or such about
TLDs. The TLD list just wasn't that big a deal (at the time). The
Internet was an experiment which, like all experiments, was supposed
to end. CCITT, ISO, and such organizations were inventing the official
technologies for the future of data communications. We know now how
that turned out Whatever TLD list and such was used in the Internet
wasn't supposed to last long. So a specific logistical decision like
the TLD list wasn't all that important - at the time.

I agree that whatever discussion happened was almost certainly carried
out mostly on the email lists which served as the primary way for
everybody to interact between quarterly meetings, and then Jon and crew
most likely put the initial list together, and there wasn't any real
opposition so it became real.

It's very difficult to identify who "invented" anything in those days.
There was lots of discussions, ideas, and strawmen passed around in
emails and then eventually somebody wrote the document or wrote the code
to capture the "rough consensus" of the discussion.

Jack Haverty
You can find these messages and the others on the thread here. I've also included snapshots of the people participating in this discussion -- they may also help give you a feel for the culture. (Which one is Jon Postel)?