Dynadot

interviews Simon Higgs: Internet Pioneer, Polymath, and NamePros Member

Spaceship Spaceship
Interested in technical innovations, the early days of domain extension planning, website development, a 7-figure domain name sale, or creative media applications? Then let me introduce you to Simon Higgs.

Simon Higgs, @Particle here on NamePros, has had a diverse, distinguished, and interesting career at the crossroads of technology and creativity.

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The First New TLD Requested

Simon Higgs holds the distinction of being the first to request a new TLD. The legendary Jon Postel circulated in December 1996 a list of requests received for new top level domains – access the full list here. The first TLD requested was .news, requested on 14 Sept 1995 by Simon Higgs.

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The first five new TLDs requested according to list circulated by Jon Postel.

The .web TLD was the third new extension requested, by someone else, later that same day. Days later Simon Higgs requested several other TLDs including .coupons, .rebates, .radio, .mov and .music.

I asked Simon about his submissions, and the process, but before we get to that, he provided the following important background.
  • In May 1993 Network Solutions was granted (by NSF – the U.S. National Science Foundation) a sole source contract to be the exclusive domain name registry for .com, .net and .org.
  • In March 1995 SAIC acquired Network Solutions.
  • On April 30, 1995 NSF turned off the existing backbone, and this gave commercial traffic unhindered transit on the internet.
  • Initially the legacy domain names were free, but starting Sept. 18, 1995 NSF gave Network Solutions permission to start charging for domain names. See more here.
Simon followed that up with some key observations:
Until 1995 there was little discontent around domain names because they were free. Network Solutions were paid through a NSF contract. The only discontent was the legacy ‘one domain per organization’ rule, which was supposed to prevent squatting. That rule mysteriously disappeared when they started charging.
In case you are wondering what the charges were in the early days, Simon explained
Network Solutions began charging $50 per year per domain name. 30% of that went back to NSF, although that stopped when the courts decided it was an illegal tax, bringing the price down to $35 per domain per year.
Note that for a time registrations were required in 2 year increments, although this pricing is per year. He continued
The internet's pushback to the new domain name fees was massive. That pushback was discussed on various electronic mailing lists…with ongoing discussion around the Network Solutions monopoly and how to break it.

With that background in mind, this is Simon’s answer to my question of why he chose .news as the first requested new extension.
As to why I chose to apply for .NEWS first, I think it was partly because of what I learned from Jon Postel through this process. Having his perspective on why/how we ended up with COM/NET/ORG informed my decision into where I should explore next. Also, we had already started building out Coupons.com which would transition coupons inserted into newspapers, plus I had a few articles published about music piracy and downloading music two years earlier. So .NEWS just seemed a logical choice.
Ultimately the process for new gTLDs would be restarted many years later under ICANN.

Laying Out A TLD Landscape

In researching this article, I was fascinated to read a series of drafts that Simon Higgs published in 1996-1997 laying out the structure for the TLDs, for example this one ID: Top Level Domain Classification and Characterization d4.

The process of how new extensions would be added was more than simply suggesting an extension. As Simon explained
When the IETF talks about "rough consensus and running code", what it means is that before our application would ever be considered, we would have to show a working registry online, and working DNS. This was clearly understood from our interaction with Jon Postel and Bill Manning at IANA. Our reward for doing so was the promise of entering those TLDs into the IANA root before the end of September 1996. We had a firm date!
I was part of the collaborative group that became the Open Root Server Confederation (Open RSC or ORSC), and on top of running the TLDs I'd applied for, I ended up running an ORSC root server on the MAE-LA ring. Our root server was only 6ms from b.root-servers.net at USC/ISI. We had people onboard like Brian Reid, Einar (Stef) Stefferud, and John Berryhill, and the organization was incorporated specifically to bid on the "IANA function" (this was known as "Newcorp" at the time until it became ICANN).
But, by setting up working parallel test infrastructure outside of the existing IANA root, we suddenly became DNS pirates to some, never to be trusted. It really was a damned if you do, damned if you don't, situation. Consequently, September 1996 passed with no movement.
In 1997 or 1998 Stef and I went out to lunch with Jon Postel to a pizza joint near Jon's office. The tables were laid out with paper table cloths and there were crayons at the table. By the end of lunch, Jon had mapped out the entire structure of Newcorp for Stef. It's one of my biggest regrets that we never kept that tablecloth.

Simon added additional context.
I laid out the various classes of TLD, what they were, and how to expand them. The names I came up with were based upon the USPTO's list of US trademark classes, which, in hindsight, was probably a terrible place to start, as the WIPO folk outside the US kept reminding me.
Jon Postel asked me how the business case for competitive registries would work. I explained how the registrars would function - as shopfronts reselling the inventory of the registry backend, and that is what we have today. The registry/registrar relationship is based around this conversation Jon and I had back in 1996.

Many Other Firsts

But that was far from the only first of Simon Higgs. This document lists several others including the first working clock on the web, one of the earliest rotating banner ads, and the first downloadable consumer coupon, among others.

I asked him about the rotating banner ad:
I got hired as an expert witness, and dug out the prior art for the case. I have disk images of the Coupons.com web site(s) and related data going back to 1994. One of the attorneys went out and bought an older laptop, booted up the web server image, and found that the web site banner ads rotated.
However, I think it was Wired magazine that first came up with the banner ad format. I know that I didn't come up with it because I thought it was a really bad idea when I first saw it.

Registering Coupon and Coupons

According to Whois, the domain name Coupon.com was first registered on June 9 of 1994. The plural was registered on Sept 7 of the same year. The delay was because of Network Solutions policy at the time of one domain per person/company.
I had to fight hard to register Coupons.com because, back in 1994, Network Solutions were only registering one domain name per applicant. After carefully explaining that coupons.com was the plural of coupon.com, and that Network Solutions would find themselves with an intellectual property dispute if they registered it to someone else, they reluctantly registered the domain name to me.
To place this in historical perspective, the coupon.com registration by Simon Higgs was more than a year prior to the first domain purchased by Rick Schwartz in December 1995. Coupons.com was registered about a month after Gary Kremen registered sex.com on May 9, 1994.

Running A Coupons Business

Starting late in 1994, Simon Higgs used those domain names in a coupon business – see the article How I've been waiting 20-years for the Coupons.com IPO.
In December of 1994, I put the first downloadable coupon on the web, which was for a British pub in the Los Angeles area (not exactly a surprise for those who know me).
He used the online forum CouponNet, a precursor to social media, to grow the business. They won an Innovative Practice for Best Online Community award in 1996, beating out competitors including Fedex, Ford and Amazon.

But awards and innovation did not impress investors of the time, as Simon wrote
In spite of all this success, the venture capital community didn't understand couponing because, in their words, they would ‘never be seen dead using a coupon’. Consequently, I funded it all myself, and, in true dot com form, ran out of money in 1997. The site was put on the back burner, and I went to work as a contractor.

It turned out that the lengthy commute for that job made it worthwhile to wait an extra 90 minutes or so for the return each day, and he put that time into getting the coupons business back operational. As he explains
So with time to kill, I spent an hour a day, after work, getting Coupons.com back online and found it was much different this time around. Firstly, I put live advertisers up in September 1999, and there was an immediate revenue steam. Secondly, by the end of December 1999, there was positive cash flow and enough profitability for me to start working on it again full time.
I asked about the types of business most receptive to the coupon idea.
The businesses that had an online presence were always more receptive, because they understood what we were doing. The benefit to them was getting traffic from us, but there was a reluctance to pay us for something they could put on their own website. The businesses that had no online presence were a mixed bag. Some wanted traffic to their physical store rather than a web site. There was a steep learning curve for all those who didn't have an online presence.

Selling Coupons.com

Readers may recall the Domain Sherpa episode of June 2, 2011 with Steven Boal on the $1 billion valuation of Coupons.com. That episode gives the perspective from the person who bought coupons.com, but what about the seller? That, it turns out, was Simon Higgs.

As you recall from the preceding, the redevelopment of coupons.com was moving along nicely in late 1999. As written by Simon Higgs
The day before Christmas Eve 1999, about an hour before I was about to jump on a plane to the UK, a gentleman named Steven Boal called me. At the time, Steven's company, Xadvantage Corp., was one of Coupons.com's highest grossing advertisers, and we were providing thousands of referrals every month to his ValuePass.com web site.
His main competition for these referrals was an advertiser called CoolSavings.com, which was a direct competitor that was generating twice the number of referrals. Steven understood the dynamics of this, and, wanting to shut his competition out, said he wanted to buy Coupons.com outright for the traffic it was already generating. He had venture capital financing lined up, so we started serious talks in early January 2000, and by the end of January, Steven had acquired both domain names from me (coupon.com and coupons.com) in a cash and stock deal. As CEO, he also renamed his company, which was founded in 1998, to Coupons.com, Inc.
At the time of the Domain Sherpa episode, although the price range was known, the specific price was not revealed. Simon has now shared that with me.
The sale amount was split in half as $1.3 million in cash, and the exact same amount in stock (which was around 4% of the issued stock at the time - that percentage then got diluted in the next series of VC rounds).
I asked if the price was for the domains alone or for the entire operating business.
It was the two domain names, and any IP directly associated with them, like trademark/naming rights. Nothing from the existing business, which we kept.
I asked if he had any regrets in selling, and he replied no. The Coupons.com company has subsequently seen the stock falter, and is now under private ownership after a stock buyout.

He went on to explain a bit of the thought process behind coupon and similar incentive processes.
One of the intriguing aspects I uncovered, which spans from coupons to domain names, is incentive theory/management. True mastery lies in the strategic placement of incentives to achieve the desired outcome. This is not the same as manipulation. Manipulation, by nature, is primarily aimed at benefiting the manipulator at any cost. In contrast, incentives are strategically placed to ensure a fair outcome for all, as per game theory, and the potential consequences of these incentives must be meticulously considered.

A Stealth Server

One of Simon’s technical inventions was a stealth server, technology that ended up being used to protect the internet root DNS. Let’s back up a bit to 1994. Simon was using a modem based dial-up account, permanently connected, in concert with a very limited 1 MB online hosting space, to offer web hosting. Yes, incredible that it was even possible. He writes about how that was done, and the challenges.
So we carefully uploaded all our most popular web site graphics into the 1MB of web hosting space on EarthLink. That way, all we had to do was squeeze a small html file from our servers, at home, through the modem, and the graphics would be all served from EarthLink’s web server on their much greater bandwidth.
He was testing multiple DNS servers, and along the way discovered that he could offload the DNS requests to that Earthlink hosting space, even though they applied to servers which were physically connected through the modems at his home. That was the key idea of a stealth server, which is defined in an IBM document as

"A stealth server is a server that answers authoritatively for a zone, but is not listed in that zone's NS records."
He shared how he accomplished this with Jon Postel:
It was on one of my regular trips to see Jon Postel, at IANA, that I told him, and Bill Manning, about my success with my DNS stealth server. Jon’s reaction was initially 'you can’t do that', referring to the fact that a primary DNS server declares itself authoritative for a zone with a flag it broadcasts. Then he laughed, and said “I guess we can fudge the authoritative bit.” And that's exactly what they did.
A couple of weeks later, Network Solutions (now Verisign), who host the ‘A root server’, announced they were using a stealth DNS server to protect all of the root DNS servers. What they had done was firewall off their stealth server from the public internet, making it unreachable except from the 13 root servers which it would update.
Read all about the stealth server here.

Electronic Cafe Showcase

Way back in Nov. 18, 1993 Simon was involved in something called the Electronic Cafe Showcase. Artists from different parts of the globe were able to perform together, and people could interact with life-size images of people from other cities.
The Electronic Cafe was a hybrid telecom lab and theater workshop. Viacom paid for that particular event as a proof of concept. They wanted to compare the costs of their existing satellite feeds to the possibility of switched T1/T3 and, ultimately, if their feeds could work over the internet backbone. We could also test the delays/lag over TCP/IP and the pros and cons of remote internet collaboration. Thirty years on, and we all have Zoom now.
When I read the descriptions, it brought to mind some of the possibilities of today’s spatial computing environments.
From the Composite Image Space piece, we discovered the possibility of more than one person sharing the same physical space inside a production. These events birthed the early exploration of spatial computing in Los Angeles. You have to realize the vast collision of various technologies that happened at the time, 1993-1994.

Thoughts on Blockchain and TLDs

I asked how he felt about the evolution of the TLDs.
Monopoly registries, like the ones ICANN keeps minting, are totally unnecessary in the 21st century. So here's my vision for the shared registry. We have the blockchain now, so the underlying registration transactions and ownership information can be recorded in a cryptographically signed ledger that all the reseller participants (aka registrars) are jointly responsible for.
I asked specifically how he felt about decentralized blockchain domains.
Everything is a fad if it doesn’t make it into ICANN’s ‘one true root’™. Sad but true. Every time names show up in alternate spaces there has to be the infrastructure to support them. The ICANN infrastructure is significant. There are, I think, around 1500 server instances around the world acting on behalf of just the IANA root servers.
Blockchain can compete with ICANN especially using the well established blockchains. But the blockchains have to be able to survive a long game. If new names are only available on the desktop via something like a browser extension, it won’t find wide adoption.
Don’t get me wrong here, blockchain can be the answer to break registry monopolies, and Whois accountability could work anonymously inside the blockchain through public and private keys. But you still have to go through ICANN to get them to cede distributed power inside their root which isn’t going to be easy. At the very least, all these blockchain TLD names need to be recognized as at least Special-Use Domain Names by the IETF.
Asked about the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the domain industry, he offered the following opinions.
Some registries understand the pricing structure that the market will bear, and some do not. Why would anyone pay $x000 a year, every year, for what is really a 30 cents entry in a database? Overpricing general inventory and holding so-called premium domains for ransom isn’t how the namespace is supposed to work.
I’ve had entire new TLDs blocked because of spam, phishing, malware, command and control, and grayware originating from them. This is probably the largest weakness as it erodes trust from the entire industry. Guilt by association.

Simon Higgs The Person

In closing, I asked Simon a bit about himself, and what he is doing recently. He grew up in the Kent countryside in the UK, and is now a dual US-UK citizen. His dad was responsible for miners’ pensions.
After he died, we got letters from all over the country thanking him for working out the deal that ended the miners’ strike. When you’re a kid, they’re just people to you, and you don’t appreciate the depth of their experience. I do now.
He went on to talk about his education and work experience.
My background is in telecommunications, having completed an apprenticeship with British Telecom. But my passions are art and music. I played guitar in a band evenings and weekends.
Following a workplace injury, he decided to see what the rest of the world had to offer, first on stage touring eastern North America in a small theatre company. He eventually ended up in Hollywood, and an internship at Gibson Guitars in Artist Relations. Through that he learned the promotions business. A bit later he got into website design and hosting, and then the coupons business as described earlier.
From a creative perspective, my career has essentially been building things that hadn’t existed before. I’ve done a lot of consulting on emerging technologies. My schooling was very much in the ‘art school to rock band’ vein so I always look for the creative opportunities. In one sense, my ideas for the expansion of the DNS space and new TLDs was just using TCP/IP as a canvas.
Nowadays he is concerned with environmental, society, and equity issues.
Where my energies are going now are into vehicles that can hopefully positively affect change.

It is impossible to summarize such a productive and varied body of work, but I liked the following description:

Simon works from the principle that all knowledge is interconnected and combines his formal training in art, design, music and telecommunications with experience in marketing and management to traverse multiple disciplines.

There is so much more that could have been said. For example, I didn’t even touch on his significant contributions as an artist and a producer – see Simon Higgs Discography.

Given that his NamePros handle is @Particle, I wondered if his family tree was related to Peter Higgs of Higgs particle fame. As far as he knows, it is not.

A sincere thank you to Simon for the huge amount of time he spent answering every question I threw his way, providing background and interpretation well beyond my expectations. We at NamePros are truly fortunate to have such a visionary internet pioneer among our ranks. @Particle has been a NamePros member since October 2023, and is a PRO member.


In addition to heartfelt thanks to @Particle, I would also like to acknowledge a source at NamePros for suggesting the interview topic, and to @Edward for contributing several of the questions.

Updates:
May 16, 2024. The year of the Electronic Cafe was corrected to 1993.
May 17, 2024. I added a one paragraph quotation (Starts with "It was on....") to clarify the section on the stealth server, as well as a link to a full article on the topic.
 
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So much to appreciate and to learn! Thank you very much, Mr @Bob Hawkes , and congratulations to @Particle on his career!
 
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