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The history of internet domains: from ARPANET to Web3

January 26, 2023

10 min

The history of internet domains: from ARPANET to Web3

The web has not always been the inexhaustible source of information that we know today; at one time, the infinite network of resources and services was a network of a few computers. From the very beginning of the Internet’s history, however, domain names have been protagonists: the dynamics concerning their management, purchase and use have characterised more than 50 years. Starting with the creation of the ARPANET, we will look at the early stages of the Internet, going beyond the dotcom bubble to NFT domains.

ARPANET and DNS: the prequel to the history of Internet domains

One of the crucial events in the history of internet domains is certainly the dot com bubble at the beginning of the millennium, but to explain its motives and mechanisms we have to rewind the tape a little more. 29 October 1969: Charley Kline, at 10.30 p.m. in Los Angeles, sends the first message through the ARPANET, the computer network created by the U.S. Defence Advanced Resource Projects Agency (DARPA). Charley Kline only managed to send the single syllable ‘Lo’ before the system crashed; the complete word ‘Login’ was delivered a few hours later to a server at the Stanford Research Institute, which enabled him to access the ARPANET and, metaphorically, the ‘online’ era.

This network of four computers, conceived as early as 1967, is in fact the embryonic form of the Internet: as it evolved, it would stimulate the highly speculative period 40 years later, created around the ‘dot com’ domains. 

The ARPANET thus introduced us to the history of Internet domains, precisely because solving the difficulties of using this network gave rise to the system we still use today. In this primordial computer network, each computer was assigned a unique numeric code, which was then associated with a name to allow communication between devices. These matches were retrieved each time from a single registry (HOSTS.TXT), but this centralised process greatly limited the expansion of the network. In fact, a single database would not have been able to respond to hundreds (now billions) of requests simultaneously.

Fun Fact

IP addresses derive from the system of socket numbers, proposed by Jon Postel in 1972 to uniquely identify resources on the Internet. In practice, they are codes consisting of four groups of three digits (0 to 255), with each factor being associated with particular functions and information. This registry would become the basis for IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), created in 1988 to allocate IPs globally and today a department of ICANN.

In 1983, therefore, an alternative mechanism was adopted, based on distributed servers: today’s Domain Name System (DNS). In practice, the DNS is a hierarchical structure composed of several databases, each of which manages a precise domain name and level. These, in fact, are organised into several ‘subordinates‘: in academy.youngplatform.com we can recognise as many as 3. Starting with the Top Level Domain (TLD) “.com” on the right, the DNS ‘searches‘ more and more specifically, so as to find the IP address associated with the precise domain name; in this way, it is possible to locate the host server from which to retrieve the contents of the relevant website.

In 1984, the University of Wisconsin created the first DNS nameserver and 7 top-level Internet domains (TLDs) were released:

  • .com: originally dedicated to commercial entities, it is now the most widespread and used for the most diverse purposes;
  • .org: designed for non-profit organisations;
  • .net: reserved for network technologies and distributed computer networks;
  • .int: limited to internationally active organisations, companies and projects (two or more countries). The issue of this extension was requested by NATO itself;
  • .edu: entities that carry out educational activities in the USA, such as universities and colleges;
  • .gov: government agencies, but only US agencies;
  • .mil: military organisations of the United States Department of Defence.

The history of Internet domains begins in the USA, so we should not be surprised that the first TLDs were limited to American entities. In fact, the first organisation to register a domain name was DARPA itself: on 1 January 1985, it acquired the domain darpa in the extensions .net, .org, .gov, .edu, .mil and .harpa. On 15 March, a Massachusetts computer company registered the first ‘dot com’ domain name: Symbolics.com.

The ‘dotcom’ bubble

On 24 February 1986, domain name registration was open to all and free of charge, because it was subsidised by the National Science Foundation (NSF), an agency of the US government, through the aforementioned IANA. Previously, in fact, only organisations already participating in the ARPANET could acquire a domain name. The network, therefore, began to expand, until it was connected to the NSF network at the end of the 1980s: the resulting larger network was thus called the Internet. Shortly afterwards, in 1991, Tim Berners Lee working at CERN created the World Wide Web (WWW), the network we still use today.

Soon it was necessary to create a new central body, capable of managing the flows of the fledgling Internet. Thus, in 1993, the InterNIC was founded by merging the IANA and the NSF, and was entrusted with the management of the Domain Name System. It was the InterNIC that, in 1995, made the registration of Internet domains subject to payment, setting the price of an annual subscription at $50. This marked the beginning of the ‘modern’ history of Internet domains, perhaps more appropriately marked by the registration of google.com in 1997; in any case, by the same year, 3-letter names in the ‘dot com’ extension were already exhausted.

In 1998, it was decided to privatise the management of the system, which until then had been de facto in the hands of the US government. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was therefore founded, the non-profit organisation that replaced the InterNIC in control of the DNS, delegating the sale and registration of Internet domains to Registrars and Registries. This change made the Internet more accessible, free but above all competitive. Some companies, in fact, contested the new domain name market, in order to grab the management of Top Level Domains. Others, on the other hand, tried to build new businesses on the Internet, represented by .com domains: it was in this context that the so-called ‘dotcom bubble‘ developed.

Imagine the United States in the late 1990s: the economic landscape was characterised by great expansion, enabled by low interest rates and declining inflation. This facilitated access to money through loans: huge amounts of capital financed the birth of start-ups based on the potential of the internet, hence called dot coms. Investors in the IT sector, certain of future profits, bought shares in companies that were often nothing more than an idea, or merely elaborate marketing strategies, in the absence of a finished product. FOMO and speculation then began to inflate the valuations of these companies, taking the NASDAQ index from 1000 points in 1995 to over 5000 points in March 2000: in short, the dotcom bubble was created.

Following the motto Get big fast, the dotcoms tried to build strong brands through advertising and promotion, or even by offering products and services for free, in the hope of grabbing a ‘slice’ of the Internet market. This would allow them to obtain a customer base large enough to generate profits later on, but only by raising prices. The initial capital, however, soon ran out and thus most of the companies without a business plan went bankrupt: their shares quickly lost value, leading to the bursting of the dotcom bubble.

NFT domains: from .com to .crypto

The history of Internet domains, however, did not come to a halt: in November 2000, 7 new generic TLDs were selected and gradually introduced between 2001 and 2002, including .biz (business), .info and .coop (cooperative). Then in 2003, six more were added, such as .jobs, .tel and .mobi, the latter for websites that could be consulted by the first mobile devices.

It is easy to imagine that highly searched and common words and phrases, such as business, travel or sports, are desired by many investors or web entrepreneurs. Building a website on these second-level domain names (SLD), followed by any extension, would guarantee millions of visits. Therefore, some domains still represent a real opportunity for profit; for this reason, they have always been the subject of speculation. Registering domains at the cost of a few dollars to resell them for exorbitant sums (domain flipping) soon became the interest of many, such as Mike Mann who in 2012 bought 14,962 domain names in 24 hours for this purpose.

Fun Fact

Among the 10 most expensive domain names are Cars.com ($872 million), lasvegas.com ($90 million) but also nfts.com ($15 million). Crypto.com and Sex.com, among them, deserve a separate ranking, due to the novel stories of their sales.

In December 2013, 4-letter .com domain names were exhausted, but that same year another 100 gTLDs were issued, followed in 2018 by another 1000. Today, there are more than 1,500 extensions and potentially infinite word combinations, all underlying the same DNS mechanism, or almost. From now on, history will not always repeat itself, because it has recently had a ‘crypto’ twist: some providers have made themselves independent of ICANN, issuing Internet domains on blockchain. Freename, Unstoppable Domains and Ethereum Name Service (ENS) are examples of this new type of registrars, which create and sell NFT domains, based on smart contract technology. Their extensions emphasise the Web3 context: we have .crypto, .nft, .blockchain, .bitcoin and many other TLDs dedicated to the crypto world.

In a nutshell, NFT domains are names registered on blockchain, owned in the form of non-fungible tokens, so that ownership can be verified and tracked. You can associate them with your wallet, so as to create your own digital identity, create a decentralised website with them or simply sell them on. The story of internet domains, therefore, is far from over: it continues in Web3, opening up the potential common to cryptocurrencies; ready to discover the 10 ways to use your NFT domain?