Welcome to the Internet: what is a domain name and how does it work? † Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig PLLC

Part 1

Since January 2021, almost 40 years since the first iteration of a communication protocol capable of transferring and linking different computer networks with each other, there are more than 4.5 active Internet users. [1] Despite the fact that sixty percent of the world’s population uses the internet for everything from sharing vacation photos, videos of fireworks/concerts (that nobody ever wants to see) or buying that third plastic flamingo on the lawn – because two not enough few people know what they do on the internet or how it works. If you’re planning to have a business in 2022, you’ll no doubt need a website, but what does that mean? This series covers broad topics related to domain names, including what a domain name is, the rights granted to a domain name registrant, how to protect your domain name, domain name disputes, cybersquatting, and bad faith domain name use.

The rules governing how the Internet works are called the “Internet Protocol” or “IP,” which allows computer networks to communicate with each other and essentially allow the Internet to function as we know it.

In order to know what information is being transferred/communicated from one device to another, each device that accesses the internet has a unique set of numbers to identify the device, also known as an ‘IP address’.

Likewise, every website has its own complex IP address made up of a string of incomprehensible numbers (to you or me, it insists a computer can understand them pretty well).

To make this more user-friendly, the numbers are associated with a word, phrase or series of letters and numbers that one can enter to get to the website one wants to visit. For example, ‘www.google.com’ or ‘www.amazon.com’ are the respective domain names for Google and Amazon, while ‘www.dbllawyers.com’ is the domain name for this law firm, Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig PLLC.

When a person wants to access a website, he types the domain name of the website he is trying to visit into the uniform resource locator (“URL”) in his web browser, which people often refer to as the “web address”. The domain name contains multiple subparts, including the top-level domain (e.g., .com, .org, .net, .gov, and .edu) and the secondary-level domain (e.g., ‘google’, ‘amazon’, and ‘dbllawyers ‘”). In addition to these domains, there are also “subdomains” such as “support.google.com” and paths that take you to a specific page of a website, such as “dbllawyers.com/team”. The whole system that manages this interaction is called the Domain Name System, which allows the user to type a domain name. The DNS server translates the user-friendly word into the string of numbers that make up the website’s actual IP address.

Domain names are administered by domain registries (such as VeriSign), which rely on domain registrars (such as GoDaddy), which are accredited organizations that sell domain name reservations to the public.

Both registries and registrars are responsible for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”), a non-profit organization made up of representatives from more than 100 governments, Internet service providers, registries, registrars and other Internet stakeholders that coordinates this IP interactions around the world. A registrant is a person or entity who wants to reserve a domain name, and after registering the name with a registrar, the person or entity becomes the registrant for up to 10 years depending on the duration of the registration. [2] The registrant must then renew their domain registration before that termination date; otherwise they could lose the domain name.

For example, let’s say you are about to open Tom’s T-Shirts, LLC, an exclusive brand of high-quality t-shirts. You know that selling directly through a website is the best way to grow your business, so turn to a domain registrar to buy (actually reserve) an available domain, such as ‘tomstshirts.com’.

Unfortunately, this domain is taken, but ‘tomstshirt’ is available, so you buy it.

Congratulations, you now own that domain for that limited reservation period. At the end of your reservation period, your registrar will ask if you want to renew or expire the domain. If you don’t renew the domain name, it will be made public again and sold to another buyer on a first-come, first-served basis.

What happens if you decide that you no longer like working with your registrar and want to change it? Simple. You are within your right to transfer your domain registration from one registrar to another (although you may need to follow certain procedures set forth in the reservation agreement you entered into with your original registrar). Likewise, what if you buy a few domains and someone wants to buy one from you? Again, easy.

You can sell and transfer ownership of your domain to a third party, usually through a broker.

It is critical that you keep your registrar account information and transfer codes secret during both transfers, and in general.

Once the transfer takes place, or in the unlikely scenario, someone finds out about your account information, it becomes difficult to get your domain back.

This is because domain registrars often withdraw from any dispute over domain name ownership and rely on court orders and resolutions issued by a dispute resolution service provider approved by ICANN under the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (“UDRP” ). Either way, it’s best practice to keep all information related to your domain safe and secure and only use a trusted provider so as not to risk losing it to a nefarious third party.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Welcome to the Internet: Bad Faith Domain Name Registration and Cybersquatting.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/617136/digital-population-worldwide/

[2] Specifically, there is a process of “lifetime leases” where your registrar reserves the name for 10 years, but then automatically renews the domain for another 10 years without going through the renewal process. This is somewhat risky in case the domain registrar goes bankrupt.

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