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The domain name system (DNS) has robustly served the Internet well for more than three decades. That is a testament to the expertise and foresightedness of those who developed the concepts and specifications.

Now extensions like .com, .net and .org can be used for any type of site, but initially it was proposed that each would have a specific area of application.

The state of the domain name system in March 1994 was described in RFC 1591 Domain Name System Structure and Delegation, written by the late Dr. Jon Postel.

The RFC, Request for Comments, was a series of technical discussion papers used to document and formulate development of the internet. Dr. Postel edited the series from 1969 until the time of his death, and was also directly involved in authorship or co-authorship of more than 200 RFCs.

The technical side was defined in a number of RFCs authored by Dr. Paul Mockapetris, considered the inventor, or co-inventor, of the Domain Name System (DNS). I interviewed Dr. Mockapetris in the NamePros Blog a few years ago.

Both Dr. Postel and Dr. Mockapetris are inductees in the Internet Hall of Fame.

The Original Generic Top Level Domains

In RFC 1591, the top level structure of domain names is described:
These are the generic TLDs (COM, NET, ORG, EDU, INT, GOV, and MIL), and the two letter country codes from ISO-3166.
Note that RFC 1591, written in 1994, designated the first five TLDs as World Wide Generic Domains, while the last two were specifically for U.S. use, although the status of .edu will change, as we see below.

It is interesting that RFC 1591 went on to say
It is extremely unlikely that any other TLDs will be created.
So the original plan was a small number of TLDs, essentially one for each country, plus these generic ones.

Let’s look at the original plan for each of the generic TLDs in the original plan.

COM

Originally, it was intended that .com would only be used for commercial enterprises. Dr. Postel wrote in RFC 1591:
COM – This domain is intended for commercial entities, that is companies.

The first .com registrations date to 1985, so the domain name system was already well along by the time of this RFC. You can see a list of the 100 oldest .com domain names here.

Fun Fact: NamePros member Brad Mugford, @bmugford, operates his domain name business on DataCube.com, one of the 100 oldest .com domain names!​

NET Means Network

While now the .net TLD can be, and is, used for almost any type of application, the original plan was to restrict .net domain names to the operators of electronic networks.
This domain (NET) is intended to hold only the computers of network providers. The customers of the network provider would have domain names of their own (not in the NET TLD).
The .net extension has no restrictions on use anymore.

Fun Fact: The first .net registration, nordu.net on Jan. 1,1985, actually predates the oldest .com registration,​

EDU Restrictions Change

Originally the .edu TLD was intended for any type of educational institution, anywhere in the world. However, in 1993 it was proposed to limit this to 4-year universities and colleges, with educational institutions of other types, such as 2-year, community colleges and training institutes, to use their country code TLD.

RFC 1591 described the situation in 1994 this way:
This domain was originally intended for all educational institutions. Many universities, colleges, schools, educational service organizations, and educational consortia have registered here. More recently a decision has been taken to limit further registrations to 4-year colleges and universities. Schools and 2-year colleges will be registered in the country domains.

Starting in 2001 this TLD was further restricted to U.S. based institutions only. A few international institutions that had already receive an .edu domain, were allowed to keep using them, however.

Fun Fact: The first registered .edu domains, all registered on April 24, 1985, were University of California Berkeley and Los Angeles, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue and Rice. Rutgers came one day later.​

ORG

The description of the intended use for the .org TLD is interesting, as it was not so much specifically intended for nonprofit organizations but rather for anything that did not fit the other generic top level domains:
This domain is intended as the miscellaneous TLD for organizations that didn't fit anywhere else. Some non-government organizations may fit here.
This extension started registrations in 1985 as well, with MITRE.org the first registration (other than DARPA) in July. Read more on the history of the ORG TLD here.

An analysis I did for the NamePros Blog on Who is Buying .ORG Domain Names? showed that slightly more than half of developed recent sales are in use by for-profit operations.

INT

You don’t see a lot of .int domains, because they have always been restricted to clearly established international organizations.
This (top level) domain is for organizations established by international treaties, or international databases.
You can see a list of organizations that operate on the .int extension, including examples like INTERPOL, and the European Space Agency.

A number of organizations that would be eligible for an .int, choose to operate on an .org or other TLD. Even IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, operate on iana.org.

Fun Fact: While they would not meet current international treaty specifications to use an .int,YMCA were allowed to continue to operate on YMCA.int, and still use it today.​

MIL and GOV

The .mil and .gov were always intended, and are, restricted to U.S. military and government use.

The .gov TLD was originally intended to be broader, as RFC 1591 explains,
This domain extension was originally intended for any kind of (U.S.) government office or agency. More recently a decision was taken to register only agencies of the US Federal government in this domain. State and local agencies are registered in the country domains.

Upper Level Domains

The original plan was that the generic TLDs would be flat, normally registering names in the second level, with additional structure possible by the owner of that domain name.
Under each TLD may be created a hierarchy of names. Generally, under the generic TLDs the structure is very flat. That is, many organizations are registered directly under the TLD, and any further structure is up to the individual organizations.
This is in contrast to country code extensions, where it was anticipated from the outset that some would set up their own multiple levels, while others would not.
In the country TLDs, there is a wide variation in the structure, in some countries the structure is very flat, in others there is substantial structural organization.

Management Issues

Much of RFC 1591 is concerned with operational and management issues. Each TLD, and each domain, is to have a designated manager,
The major concern in selecting a designated manager for a (top-level) domain is that it be able to carry out the necessary responsibilities, and have the ability to do a equitable, just, honest, and competent job.

It is stressed in the document that all applicants must be fairly treated:
This means that the same rules are applied to all requests, all requests must be processed in a non-discriminatory fashion, and academic and commercial (and other) users are treated on an equal basis. No bias shall be shown regarding requests that may come from customers of some other business related to the manager – e.g., no preferential service for customers of a particular data network provider.

Domain Names And Trademarks

RFC 1591 has a brief section on trademarks:
In case of a dispute between domain name registrants as to the rights to a particular name, the registration authority shall have no role or responsibility other than to provide the contact information to both parties.

The registration of a domain name does not have any trademark status. It is up to the requestor to be sure he is not violating anyone else's trademark.

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in technical details of the DNS, two of the key documents by Dr. Mockapetris are RFC 882 Domain Names – Concepts and Facilities and RFC 883 Domain Names – Implementation and Specification.

The Wikipedia article on the Domain Name System covers a number of aspects not included in this article. The Cloudflare article What is DNS? How DNS works is informative.

As Escrow.com say in the title to a recent report, “Domain names cement themselves as the real land of the metaverse.”

While the decentralization of web3 will no doubt bring advantages, I think the case is far from clear that decentralized domain names are, overall, an improvement over the current centralized domain system.

Great minds such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dr. Paul Mockapetris, and Dr. Jon Postel conceived of the current world wide web and domain name system that we all benefit from every day.

Here is a Short History of the Internet from the Science+Media Museum.
 
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The views expressed on this page by users and staff are their own, not those of NamePros.

LoveCatchyDomains

Top Contributor
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1,236
Fun Fact: NamePros member Brad Mugford, @bmugford, operates his domain name business on DataCube.com, one of the 100 oldest .com domain names!

Thanks for that little tidbits! Great article, especially for providing the historical perspective. I also was delighted by that fact that .net was previously only for network providers.

You are always a fountain of trivia and substance!
 

DomainGaze.com

Established Member
Impact
213
Excellent post to remind us about the original intent and planning. There are a series of systems and tremendous planning that has gone behind the Internet and the World Wide Web built on top of it. It is often lost to a lot of users, so it is good to see such articles. For instance, if we ask the difference between the Internet and the WWW to most informal users, they'd be unsure!
 

FAC

Digital NomadTop Contributor
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5,469
Fun Fact: The first .net registration, nordu.net on Jan. 1,1985, actually predates the oldest .com registration,
Never knew this, always thought symbolics.com was the first overall. Cool! Thanks Bob.
 

vincew

Top Contributor
Impact
412
I was told years ago that the DNS could've been just the name left of the dot with no dot and no extension. For example: there'd be one domain called "cars" and no cars.com, cars.net, cars.org, etc.

I think that would've been a lot better system than what we have now. Domains would be so much more valuable than what they are currently.