By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1996

What’s in a name? When it comes to the Internet, more than meets the eye. A few select companies are making millions of dollars selling official Web site names to people and organizations around the world, and countless others are hoping to cash in buy “prospecting” names they think someone else might want to use in the future.

Thanks to a media artist named Paul Garrin, the arcane, limited, and easily exploitable system by which names are assigned to web sites might soon be coming to an end.

When you type a name, like or into the blank space on your browser and hit “return,” you automatically access one of the few sites around the world designated as a “name server.” It looks up the text name on a long, official list of servers, and spits out a unique set of numbers called an IP (Internet Protocol) address. These numbers are what allow your browser to find the appropriate place on the Internet.

In theory, the name attached to those numbers can be anything. But in the early days of the government-owned Internet, to keep things “simple,” the National Science Foundation and US Tax dollars supported an organization called the Internet Network Information Center (InterNIC) in administrating a naming system and maintaining a master list. With its roots in military and defense, it’s no wonder the organization came up with a system of domains like .mil (military) .com (commercial) and .edu (educational) as a way of identifying and organizing an otherwise random naming scheme. No, the names don’t need those identifying suffixes in order to function as pointers to IP addresses; they just help the folks who came up with the system identify a network’s purpose.

In 1995, as the US government moved towards privatization of the Internet, the right to administer all these names was granted to Network Solutions, a private company (not coincidentally located inside the Washington DC beltway). They charge $100 to register a name according to the existing protocol, and $50 per year after the first two years to “maintain” the name. It’s not a bad business, especially when the number of names purchased reaches 50,000 in a single month, as it did this year.

People and servers outside the United States, who couldn’t reasonably be asked to pay a private US company for a name, must go to their own country’s registration company. But since the US came up with the scheme, these non-nationals must all be identified by a suffix, like .au for Australia, and so on. So much for a nationless network.

Neither this naming protocol nor the companies officially profiting from it have any foundation in Internet architecture, which is why Paul Garrin believes he can topple the system.

Go to his new site at and you’ll find out why. Garrin has established an alternative network of nameservers around the world. With a few clicks of your mouse, you can change your browser’s default nameserver to one of the servers Garrin has set up. Now, in addition to all the “official” names listed by the standard nameservers, you’ll be able to access web sites by any name that anyone might want to choose for it, or pay just $20 to name your own site instantly. (Internic currently needs up to several weeks to conduct whatever verifications and security checks they might feel are necessary.) My page is now listed on Garrin’s server as doug.rushkoff.

What? No .com? No .uk? Exactly. As Garrin told me last week while he was putting the finishing touches on his revolution, “We’re de-territorializing the Internet, and bringing it back to the real ideal of virtual space with no national borders or hierarchies.” Why should Timothy Leary need to think of himself as a commercial site? He needn’t anymore. Through Garrin’s nameservers, you can get to his site right now by typing Tim.Leary. The official domains assigned to individuals, companies, and organizations using the Internet need no longer buttonhole them into arbitrarily assigned categories.

Further, Garrin’s new scheme all but puts the name “prospectors” out of business. He suggests dozens of new possible domain names, and even invites you to think of your own. What had been a fairly limited range of .coms and .edus now becomes as diverse as language itself, transforming a limited resource into an inexhaustible one. can now be, can be Harvard.U, and can be

But wait, there’s more: Name.Space, Garrin’s association of artists, friendly hackers and media activists, might also put InterNIC out of business. Why pay $100 for a name with an essentially government-mandated suffix when you can use any name you want, with or without one of those suffixes, for just $20? As Garrin puts it, his group has finally brought the Internet into the realm of freemarket competition: “We have removed the monopoly of controlling the database of who’s who on the Internet.”

While Garrin certainly hopes to make a few bucks off his ingenuity, he also hopes that others around the world will create their own alternate nameservers, and has developed a system through which everyone - even InterNIC – can update one another on all their new names. To him this is much more than a business. It’s an appropriation of an essentially public space by the public who truly deserve it. “We’re shifting the naming paradigm from militarism to democracy, and fulfilling the ideal nature of the Internet, which is virtual space with no borders.