Because good research needs good data

Persistence of domain names

Chris Rusbridge | 13 January 2010

I had a chat before Christmas with Henry Thompson, who works both in Edinburgh Informatics and also on the W3C TAG. Insofar as the Internet is important in sustaining long term access to information in digital form, there is a sustainability problem that we rather seem to have ignored. Everything on the Internet (literally) depends on domain names, and these are only ever rented. There is no mechanism for permanently reserving a domain name. Domain names can be lost by mistake (overlooking a bill, perhaps having moved in the interim and not informed the relevant domain name registrar), but they can also be lost on business failure. Although domain names can be a business asset, I understand that the registrars have some discretion on transfers, and in particular one cannot make a "domain name will" seeking transfer of the domain name to some benevolent organisation. Note, the mechanism for renting domain names has sustainability advantages, providing sustainability to important services that underpin the DNS.There are two kinds of problem, one on a massive scale and one more fine-grained. The massive problem is that the entire infrastructure of the Internet depends on URIs, most of which are http URIs that in turn depend on the domain name system. So there are a number of organisations whose domain names are embedded in that infrastructure in a way and to an extent that is very difficult to change. W3C is clearly such an organisation. Many of these organisations seem rather fragile (not a comment on W3C, by the way, although its sustainability model is opaque to me). Should they fail and the domain names disappear, the relevant URIs will cease to work and various pieces of Internet machinery will fall apart.

(By the way, this does seem to be one case where a persistent ID that is independent of the original domain, such as a DOI, has advantages over a HTTP URI plus a redirect table. If the domain name no longer exists, you can't get to a redirect, whereas someone can still relink the DOI to a new location.)On the more fine-grained scale, many documents (particularly in HTML) are not easily separable from their location, depending on other local files and documents. In addition of course, documents in some sense exist through their citations or bookmarks, that begin to exist separately from the document. Moving a document to a new domain can make it "fail" or disappear. So sustainability is linked to the domain as well as the other preservation factors.This seems to me to be not at all a technical problem, but it seems to have legal/regulatory, governance, social, business and economic aspects.Among the solutions might be creating a new top level domain designed for persistence, with different rules of succession, etc. Another (either instead of or in conjunction with the first) might be creating an organisation designed for persistence, to hold endowed domain names. Somehow the ongoing revenue stream for those underpinning services must be retained indefinitely into the future.We don't think we have the answers, but we do think there is a problem here; I'm not yet sure if we have articulated it accurately at all. I would appreciate any comments. Thanks,