There are two kinds of addresses on the Internet: real ones and aliases. The real ones are the numbers used by the machines when they communicate with each other. To make the Net a more human place, these names have been given verbal aliases, most ending in ".com". Each element of these names is called a "domain" (not some romantic fancy, but a mathematical term familiar to the engineers who set up the system). A few years ago, people coming to the Net for the first time were faced with addresses - or URLs (uniform resource locations) - which put German compound nouns in the shade. These addresses specified the Net equivalent of flat number, house number, street, district, town and postcode.
But the hordes of ".coms" which now dominate the Web have trampled over the engineers' train set. A useful new anthology, ReadMe! (Autonomedia, pounds 15), includes an essay by Ted Byfield, whose discussion of the Domain Name System, or DNS, appeared on the Rewired site last year.
The ".coms", observes Byfield, see a Web address not as a detailed specification of where a file can be found, but as a means of projecting a brand. Web addresses are now terse and memorable. The domains evoked are mythical; not dragons and knights, but Pepsi and MTV.
There are now about six million registered names, according to registry organisation NetNames. The DNS is feeling the strain, with proposals and comments shuttling across the skeins of bureaucracy which administer the Net.
Much of the debate concerns the "top-level domains" (TLDs) - such as ".com" - which go at the end of an address. The system is inconsistent and probably inadequate. While institutional TLDs such as the ".edu" used by American universities are properly assigned, the 249 country codes, two-letter TLDs such as ".uk", are not. Americans hardly ever use their ".us", preferring to tag everything ".com" even if it has nothing to do with commerce. And some codes have achieved a popularity out of all proportion to the country's importance. Turkmenistan has ".tm", which appeal to companies wanting to emphasise their trademarks. The South Pacific island of Tuvalu rejoices in the code ".tv". Another island, Niue (population 2,200), has about 30,000 names registered under its domain ".nu".
Dots on the map can make a nice little sideline out of selling dots on the Net, thanks to the International Standards Organisation, which assigns country codes. One company seeking the franchise to administer the Tuvalu TLD is reported to have offered the island's government $50m. Other domain dealers rely on the success of the ".com" brand. A website called Domain Alley recently claimed to have sold "director.com" for $20,000.
Last year the US government tried to wean its Netizens off their ".com" obsession by proposing new TLDs such as ".arts" and ".shop". But it was blocked by the European Union, which objected to the way the US assumed it controlled the Internet. Meanwhile, ".com", ".org" and ".net" remain vaguely defined. The latter should denote a provider of network services, a description that could just be applied to this column, but not to Liverpool FC, which has managed to wangle itself a ".net".
Telephone numbers had exchange names before area codes, and communications did not suffer when names were replaced with numbers. The spirit of the Net is different, though. One of the US's suggested new TLDs was ".nom", for names. Now if they changed that to ".ego", we could have the next great Internet boom on our hands.
Visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on firstname.lastname@example.org