St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Where Domain Names Go to Die

or: How the Internet Really Works

So I’m kind of a computer nerd. I know, you’d never have guessed it what with all my people skills, but I assure you it’s true. Because I’m a nerd I know what a domain name is, but I also know that most Muggles won’t know about this kind of garbage. A domain name, like, is the address of a computer somewhere. We have domain names because computers’ real addresses, IP addresses, look like Stephen Hawking threw up onto his keyboard. When you visit a website, your computer looks up the domain name, translates it into an IP address, and then asks the computer at that address to give you the porn you wanted. A top-level domain is the last bit of the URL. Some of these are very common, like .com and .net, while some less common ones are .aero, .ninja, or .xxx. Then there are the country-specific top-level domains that (are supposed to) designate websites related to a country, like .au for Australia or .uk for the UK. These often get co-opted because they look cool, like .tv (Tuvalu), which gets used by TV companies because who the hell has ever heard of Tuvalu. .io is another common one, and that apparently belongs to the British Indian Ocean Territory. Who knew.

There’s no reason why domains like .com and .ninja shouldn’t be around forever. But what happens to those country domains when that country stops existing? What happened to .yu when Yugoslavia broke up? What happened to .zr when Zaire collapsed? There are people who paid good money for dwarfporn.yu and themanwithtwodongs.zr. What happens to those fine, upstanding folk?

It’s time to tell you how the Internet really works. When you first learned about the Internet, you probably got what I call the “Oompa Loompa talk”. They tell you that the Internet is not a computer in some government bunker being tended by a race of simple, Oompa Loompa-like creatures. That was, of course, a lie — that’s exactly what the Internet is. The Internet is owned by America and it is a big computer in a government cave somewhere. And yes, I wouldn’t bet that there aren’t Oompa Loompas guarding it. Actually, I ought to be more specific. The domain name system is owned by America — the computer that translates domain names into IP addresses is actually thirteen computers owned by the US government1. The Internet would still work without these thirteen computers sprinkled across the globe like the components to the Doomsday Machine, but you’d have to enter Google’s IP address instead of the much nicer The Internet, as it is used by its kabillions of users every day, is effectively run by the American government and its finger-puppets.

The agencies that run these servers determine what’s allowed to be a top-level domain and what’s not. They wave their magic wand when they want to create new and exotic top-level domains like .lightning (shut up, it’s real). They’re also the folks who phase out country domains when those countries get overthrown and renamed by their new leader, the great and glorious General Stompenface. Mercifully the process is not as arbitrary as you might think. If the US government had been in charge of determining who is and isn’t a legitimate country, then communist China wouldn’t have been a country until 1979. Our dark overlords decided to defer to a list of countries maintained by the International Standards Organization (ISO)2. When a country gets added or removed from that list, the overlords have to add or remove it from the thirteen domain name servers.

This brings us back to what got me curious like 17 years ago at the start of this post. What happens to those websites when a top-level domain gets removed? First the country gets removed from the ISO list. Then an ISO lackey gets on the red telephone, calls up the overlords, and in a strange language of their own invention composed mainly of squawks and howls, communicates that the list has changed. The overlords resolve to “decommission” the top-level domain and begin their dark business. In the case of Yugoslavian .yu domains, all .yu domain names had their equivalents reserved under the new Serbian .rs domain. .yu owners then had the opportunity to switch over and claim their new domains. When this was done the overlords began to shut off inactive .yu domains, while the active domain owners and their users had the unenviable task of migrating all their email addresses, login credentials, and mailing list registrations to the new domains. I haven’t been able to figure out whether .yu owners had to pay for the new .rs domains, but since the transition happened over two and a half years, most of those .yu domains probably expired on their own anyway.3

Yugoslavia’s transition seems to have been a happy one. By contrast the Soviet Union’s .su domain, which was created a whole fourteen months before the Soviet Union fell on its sword, is still accepting new registrations today despite the overlords grumbling about wanting to switch the thing off.

I guess the moral of this story is “Don’t live in a country that’s about to get taken over, renamed, and economically buggered by the new administration.” But then I think most of us knew that one already. The more interesting thing I found out after reading about all this jazz is that the Internet is basically run by America in a way that is completely over the head of the average user. Yes, it is technically still the decentralized system it was intended to be, but we seem to have hitched our wagon to thirteen very dubious stars.


  1. Specifically the thirteen servers are owned by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who are run by the US Department of Commerce. The actual management is done by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is under contract to the US Department of Commerce, and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which was formerly under contract to the US Department of Defense. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — America owns the Internet. 

  2. ISO 3166-1

  3. The process is documented in several IANA reports, such as IANA Report on Deletion of the .zr Top-Level Domain and Removal of the .YU domain formerly representing Yugoslavia

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