Episode 532: The Wild West Of The Internet : Planet Money For decades, most websites ended in either .com, .net, or .org. But a few years ago, everything changed.
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Episode 532: The Wild West Of The Internet

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Episode 532: The Wild West Of The Internet

Episode 532: The Wild West Of The Internet

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, it's Jacob Goldstein. Today's show is a rerun. It was first reported by Caitlin Kenney and David Kestenbaum back in 2014. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

When you go to a website and you type in whatever - Amazon.com, Facebook.com, joespizza.com (ph) - did you ever wonder how we ended up with dot-com as the ending? It turns out you have to go back to the earliest days of the internet. I tracked down one of the founders.

Is it right you were present when the internet was created?

STEVE CROCKER: Yeah, but let me be - try to be careful about this.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter).

This is Steve Crocker. It turns out, like all things internet, the creation of the internet itself was a collaboration. Crocker was a grad student in the 1960s, and back in those days, every computer was separate. But there was this idea - what if you could string wires between each one and work out some way for them to communicate? Then they could send stuff back and forth. The project that Crocker worked on was called the ARPANET. They managed to hook up four computers at different universities. If you were sitting at one and you wanted to communicate with another, it was really very bare bones. You didn't type a name for that computer. You had to just use a number.

CROCKER: UCLA was one. SRI was two. UCSB, Santa Barbara, was three and Utah was four. And I'm being absolutely literal.

KESTENBAUM: You'd say, like, connect to number one, connect to number two.

CROCKER: Exactly so.

KESTENBAUM: Things quickly got more complicated. More and more computers got added to the network.

CROCKER: Previous attempts had been to connect two or three computers together, and by those standards, this was enormous.

KESTENBAUM: How many computers?

CROCKER: Well, it started out with four and quickly grew to 15 and then grew to 50.

KESTENBAUM: It is, of course, a pain to have to remember those numbers. So someone writes a few lines of computer code, and now you don't have to remember MIT is six or whatever. You just type M-I-T.

So even computer people prefer to have letters than numbers (laughter).

CROCKER: Well, yes (laughter). Computer people really are just like everybody else. They're people.

KESTENBAUM: This, it turns out, was only a temporary fix. The number of computers connected grew to the hundreds and more. Someone needed to take charge to build the new naming system to bring order to the growing chaos, and this historic task was given to Paul Mockapetris, who - well, he just got his Ph.D.

PAUL MOCKAPETRIS: You know, the only reason I got the job was nobody thought it was important. And so we have a new Ph.D. Let's give him the - this job.

KESTENBAUM: Paul says there was this big debate going on. Some people wanted this internet thing organized by country. Other people said, come on. Let's be more international about it. Let's group things by type. And so the idea of ending web addresses with a dot and then a few letters was born. But remember, at the time, the internet was much smaller, and it was just seen as this thing for governments and universities. Again, Steve Crocker.

CROCKER: You had dot-mil for the military portion of the U.S. government, dot-gov for the civilian side, dot-edu for universities, and then for those few commercial companies that happened to be part of it, a little catchall called dot-com.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter).

CROCKER: Of course now it's a major property.

KESTENBAUM: Dot-com was born. C-O-M was for commercial companies. I asked Paul Mockapetris who actually came up with it.

MOCKAPETRIS: You know, I've had about three sets of people ask me to testify to the fact that they did it.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter).

MOCKAPETRIS: And I dont really know.

KESTENBAUM: Caitlin, you know, I was expecting someone to say, yeah, I just wrote it down on a napkin, but it seems like we just don't know the answer.

CAITLIN KENNEY, HOST:

Yeah. It's funny to me, though, because I actually never thought that it stood for anything. I've just been so used to typing dot-com my whole life I've actually never thought about what dot-com stands for.

KESTENBAUM: You just type those four characters.

KENNEY: Yeah, I just kind of thought it was random, and it was assigned for a reason. And the thing that's crazy about it is that this little quirk, it ended up having really big consequences for the internet because think about it. Everybody wants the good names, the dot-com names. Like, imagine you have a business, and it's called Joe's Pizza. So the first person who gets on the internet gets joespizza.com. That's it. They're good. They have a nice, clean website name. But then all the other Joe's Pizzas out there all across the U.S., they have to add words and letters. They have to become bigjoespizza.com (ph), joespizzaon7th.com (ph), happyjoes.com (ph), tomatojoespizza.com (ph).

KESTENBAUM: You left out joespizzaofthevillage.com (ph).

KENNEY: (Laughter) Right because that one's easy to remember.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) So for the people who were not first who were not lucky, some of them have had to pay big money to the people who got those simple website names. First, Toys R Us, for instance, bought toys.com for $5 million. Sex.com sold for $13 million.

KENNEY: This is the reason - you know the photo-sharing website Flickr? It's actually spelled F-L-I-C-K-R - no E.

KESTENBAUM: Flickr.

KENNEY: Because the guy who owned the domain, the flicker with the E dot-com - he wouldn't sell it to the people. And they loved the name for their company. So their solution was drop the E. Sometimes, you got to do that to find a little space that hasn't been taken.

KESTENBAUM: There are currently over 100 million websites ending in dot-com, which is one reason right now, as I speak, big changes are afoot. New options for website names - not only is there dot-com and dot-gov, dot-edu.

Now dot-ninja has been added. Also, dot-bike, dot-plumbing, dot-cool, - in all, over a thousand new domains, as they're called. They're going to be added. It's like whole new pieces of internet real estate have been opened up.

Everyone who dreamed of getting a short, easy name on the internet - now they can grab one. And it is very much the wild, wild West. There are settlers. And they're new land barons with big dreams hoping to strike it rich.

Hello. And welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum.

KENNEY: And I'm Caitlin Kenney. Today on the show, we take a tour of the new internet real estate. We meet the dreamers and a skeptic who thinks more land may not be better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KESTENBAUM: This world of online web addresses - the rules for it are set by a nonprofit group called ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

KENNEY: What a boring-sounding name.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) It's this nonprofit group. It's supposed to be like an impartial caretaker for internet names. And after a long, many-year process of discussing pros and cons and pros and after open forums and position papers and listening to everything anyone had to say, they decided it was time for new names.

Those last letters that you type on a web address like dot-com - that's called a top-level domain. And basically, they're going to allow all kinds of new top-level domains. If you're ICANN, this is a kind of hard thing to explain to the public.

Their best effort is this little cartoon called "The Dot Has Friends," starring this little animated smiley dot thing that goes flying around in a rocket ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "NEW GTLDS: THE DOT HAS NEW FRIENDS!"

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The dot is making new friends - more than 1,300 of them. And they're going to change the internet like never before.

KENNEY: And in classic internet fashion, anybody who wanted to get one of these new top-level domains - one of the new pieces of real estate - they could apply and try to develop it. You could buy, say, dot-menu, for example, and try to sell it to restaurants who wanted websites ending in dot-menu.

Think of it - joespizza.menu (ph), caitlinscafe.menu (ph). Think of it as an internet island just for restaurants and their menus. Or instead of dot-menu, you could apply for, you know, dot-cats or whatever you wanted, basically.

KESTENBAUM: When Adrienne McAdory heard about this, she thought, I am definitely applying. At the time - couple of years ago - she was working for the Pentagon. She was a contractor doing IT work.

ADRIENNE MCADORY: And I read on the internet that the internet was expanding.

KESTENBAUM: Were you actually, like, at work at the Pentagon thinking about this?

MCADORY: Oh yeah, in the basement.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) You're in the basement of the Pentagon?

MCADORY: In the basement of the Pentagon - in the basement of the Pentagon, in the dungeon with the - where the rest of us peons work.

KESTENBAUM: But then she had this question. Which domain should I apply for?

MCADORY: I was thinking about lifestyle. You know, I wanted to do something with lifestyle. And so then, you know, my girlfriends and I just have incessant conversations about - oh, not married. Can't find the right guy, blah, blah, blah.

KESTENBAUM: That's it, she thought. Weddings - dot-W-E-D - wed. People can put all their wedding pages there - adrianandmartin.wed (ph), maryandjohn.wed (ph), johnandjohn.wed (ph). People would pay for those kinds of sites. So she applied. She had to send in a really long application. There was a $185,000 fee. She used some retirement money. And her dad helped out. And finally, dot-wed was hers.

KENNEY: The thing about owning one of these domains is that once you get it, you're, like, the mayor. You can set the rules. And one of Adrienne's rules is - listen, sweetie. I know you love your spouse, but you can't hold on to that wedding webpage forever.

KESTENBAUM: This, she says, will be enforced in the following way - price to own a dot-WED site for the first year - 70 bucks; second year - 70 bucks; third year - $30,000.

MCADORY: That is because we want you to move on into the sunset and live happily ever after and let the next Mary (ph) and John (ph) have that site.

KESTENBAUM: She figures if 6,000 couples in love buy websites, she'll break even.

KENNEY: That thing about setting your own rules, that's part of the appeal of these new domains. New York, for instance, has dot-NYC. So it can require that all businesses that want to use that have to actually be in New York. If you buy dot-kids, you could pledge to make it totally kid-safe material.

KESTENBAUM: A lot of the new domains are targeting very specific groups. But a couple people are thinking big. I mean, really, why restrict yourself to just people getting married? You could try to become the next dot-com, the next all-purpose ending, the thing you can stick on the back of any business name. After all, dot-com is pretty crowded.

DANIEL NEGARI: All of the good real estate is taken. The only thing that's left is something with a dash or maybe three dashes and a couple numbers in it.

KESTENBAUM: This is Daniel Negari. He's 28 years old, and as far as he knows, the youngest person to be granted one of the new domains. His mom and some fraternity brothers are helping him out. His contender to take on dot-com is dot-xyz.

NEGARI: The way I looked at it was we end the alphabet with X-Y-Z. We should end domain names the same way.

KESTENBAUM: X-Y-Z, it's universal, yet abstract and catchy.

NEGARI: Try and forget it, I dare you.

KESTENBAUM: X-Y-X, you're right.

NEGARI: X-Y-Z, it just sticks. It's natural. It really makes sense.

KESTENBAUM: What about Q-R-S?

NEGARI: Doesn't make sense to me. There's only one ending to the alphabet, and there should only be one ending to a domain name.

KESTENBAUM: Good job working that in again.

NEGARI: (Laughter).

KESTENBAUM: And he tells me if I want my own personal slice, david.xyz, still available. I've got to say, I was tempted. I still kind of am.

KENNEY: And if you think of it like a land rush, Daniel and Adrienne with dot-WED, they're kind of like pioneers with covered wagons finding a little plot of land, hoping to start a town and convince people to move there. They're standing there saying, come live here. It's awesome. It'll be so easy for your friends and your customers to come and visit. They're individuals taking a chance.

KESTENBAUM: But they're up against some very big developers who are buying up huge swaths of land. Daniel Schindler has been in the internet name business for a long time. He and some other folks raised what he told me was significantly over $100 million to acquire a whole list of clever internet domains - dot-wine, dot-cool, dot-coffee, dot-guru. The list goes on and on.

DANIEL SCHINDLER: Three hundred seven were the number of new domains we applied for.

KESTENBAUM: That's a lot.

SCHINDLER: That - it's a lot. We were the largest applicant in the world by a factor of three. And Google was the second largest applicant with 101.

KESTENBAUM: I asked him, do we really need all this new real estate? I mean, how often do people really even type in web addresses by hand anymore? A lot of people get where they're going using a search engine or following a link on some page. How often do we still type in www.blahblahblah.blah (ph)?

SCHINDLER: Every minute of every day across the world. That's why memorable names are more valuable. You know, when you drive past a billboard or you see a van which has got a sign written, you know, domain name on the side of it, think to yourself how much easier it is to remember if it's a short, meaningful, specific name than a long and convoluted one that by the time you've gone by you can't remember it?

KESTENBAUM: So this is the happy vision for the future of the internet - a cleaner, more spacious, better organized place. And, you know, I could see it happening. I could see 10 years from now looking back and saying remember when everything was dot-com. That was so weird. Schindler says all this new real estate, he thinks it's going to be a good thing.

KENNEY: But there are people out there who think more real estate isn't better. Remember, there are a lot of people, a lot of companies, doing just fine with their dot-com. And for them, all of this new territory can be a threat, another thing they have to worry about.

KESTENBAUM: If you're Toys R Us and you just spent $5 million on toys.com, now you look around and you see there's toys.cool, toys.kid - hell, toys.toys. What do you do? Try to buy them all? Thomas Bradtke (ph) saw this anxiety firsthand. He's an intellectual property attorney who did some work with an organization called WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization. He hung out with a lot of lawyers for big companies.

THOMAS BRADTKE: All of the folks I was there with were brand people, general counsels for brands, and they hated this idea. They absolutely thought it was the worst because they already spent, you know, millions of dollars patrolling and policing dot-com and protecting their brand. And the idea that the internet was going to expand, it was anathema. They had ICANN representatives come and speak to the folks at WIPO, and I thought the assembled lawyers were going to throw fruit. I mean, they hated the idea.

KENNEY: Part of the reason they got freaked out is that we've had some experience with this. Back around 2000, we added about a dozen new top-level domains, including dot-biz, and things did not go well.

KESTENBAUM: Ben Edelman is a professor at Harvard, and he looked at what happened to dot-biz in its first year. He says the people who bought up websites ending in dot-biz didn't really do much with them. Dot-biz ended up being a home for speculators and people buying up property to prevent their competition from getting it.

BEN EDELMAN: It looked like half of the domains in dot-biz that had been sold were actually domains that had been sold to people who wanted to make sure no one else claimed them. And then, of the remaining half, most of them weren't in use. You know, the ratio of dot-biz domains that were actually being used to dot-biz domains that were either being held for future use or being held to prevent other people to use them, it was something like 1 to 10, 1 to 20. It was kind of an unsavory ratio - looked like most of the people were buying this not because they wanted it but because they needed to make sure that they were protected.

KESTENBAUM: The hope is that this time things will be different. There are new protections in place for trademarks and brand names. And also it's 10 years later. There are a lot more people online now. So maybe people are finally dying to bust out of dot-com.

KENNEY: Of course, it's hard to predict what's going to happen to these new domains. It's always possible you've got a nice piece of real estate and still nobody wants to move there. When U.S. settlers headed west, people picked out land that is still just tumbleweeds. But then, of course, there's Phoenix, Ariz. Lots of people want to live there.

KESTENBAUM: Tom Bradtke, the intellectual property lawyer who, by the way, ended up buying dot-menu and a few others with some of his friends, he figures things will change. But dot-com, that weird ending dreamed up in the early days of the internet, it's going to stick around.

BRADTKE: Dot-com is like New York City. Is it going to go away? It's full. It's crowded, but it's also very vital. And these new domains are, you know, the Wild West, and we hope eventually people will build on them.

KENNEY: It's still early days in the Wild West. Adrienne McAdory says it's been a very slow start for dot-WED and she's got competition. Somebody else bought dot-WEDDING. But Adrienne says bring it.

KESTENBAUM: Other domains like dot-guru, that is one of the 307 that Daniel Shindler and friends applied for, they seem to be attracting new settlers at a decent pace. When the websites on dot-guru became available, 50,000 people signed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: That was David Kestenbaum and Caitlin Kenney. This is Jacob Goldstein. I'm here back in the present, back in 2016. And to close today's show, we wanted to check in with some of those domains that were just getting started back when we first reported this story in 2014. We reached out to Adrienne McAdory the woman behind dot-wed. Here's what she told us.

MCADORY: Well, all I can say is I'm glad I didn't think this was my Willy Wonka golden ticket because it certainly has not been (laughter). You know, from a bottom line perspective, I haven't made pretty - I practically made no money.

GOLDSTEIN: She says she hasn't given up. She still puts in a few hours a week on dot-WED. But as of right now, there are only about 150 websites registered at that dot-WED domain. We also got in touch with Daniel Negari, owner of dot-xyz. We last talked to him in 2014.

NEGARI: We have a little over 6 million domains that are currently registered. We're the number four generic top-level domain in the world behind com, net and org.

GOLDSTEIN: One big moment for Daniel came last summer when Alphabet, the parent company of Google, made its home page abc.xyz. One last detail - after our original PLANET MONEY episode aired a couple years ago, Negari got sued by Verisign. They are the company that owns dot-com.

NEGARI: They sued me for saying that I'm the next dot-com, and apparently they didn't like that.

GOLDSTEIN: Negari won that case, but VeriSign is appealing. Today's show was originally produced by Jess Jiang. The rerun was produced by Elizabeth Kulas with help from Mark Bramhill (ph). Thanks also to Matthew Zuke (ph) for his help with those domain numbers. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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