Welcome to the Internet: What is a Domain Name and how does

Part 1

As of January 2021, nearly 40 years since the first iteration of a communications protocol capable of transferring and linking various computer networks to one another, there are over 4.5 active internet users. [1] However, despite sixty percent of the global population utilizing the internet for anything from sharing vacation photos, videos of fireworks/concerts (that no one ever wants to watch), or buying that third plastic lawn flamingo—because two weren’t enough—very few people know what they’re doing on the internet or how it works. If you plan to own a business in 2022, you will undoubtedly need a website, but what does that entail? This series will cover broad topics concerning domain names, including what a domain name is, the rights afforded to a domain name registrant, how to protect your domain name, domain name disputes, cybersquatting, and bad faith domain name usage.

The rules governing how the internet works are called the “Internet Protocol” or “IP,” which makes it possible for computer networks to communicate with one another and essentially allows the internet to function as we know it.

To know what information is being transferred/communicated from one device to another, each device accessing the internet has a unique set of numbers to identify the device—also known as an “IP address.” 

Similarly, each website has its own complex IP address made up of a string of incomprehensible numbers (to you or me, it stands to say that a computer can comprehend them pretty well).

To make this more user-friendly, the numbers are connected to a word, phrase, or string of letters and numbers that one may enter to go to the website they wish 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 an individual wants to access a website, they type the domain name of the website they are trying to visit into the uniform resource locator (“URL”) in their 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 secondary level domain (e.g., “google,” “amazon,” and “dbllawyers”). In addition to these domains, there are also “subdomains” such as “support.google.com” and pathways 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 in a domain name. The DNS server translates the user-friendly word into the string of numbers that makes up the website’s actual IP address.

Domain names are managed 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 answer to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”), which is a non-profit organization made up of representatives from over 100 governments, internet service providers, registries, registrars, and other internet stakeholders that coordinates these IP interactions across the world. A registrant is a person or entity that wishes to reserve a domain name, and upon registering the name with a registrar, the person or entity becomes the registrant for up to 10 years, depending on the length of registration. [2]  The registrant must then renew their domain registration prior to that termination date; otherwise, they could lose the domain name.

So, let’s say, for example, that you are about to open up Tom’s T-Shirts, LLC, an exclusive brand of high-quality t-shirts. You know that direct-to-consumer sales via a website are the best way to grow your business, so you turn to a domain registrar to purchase (in reality, reserve) an available domain, such as ‘tomstshirts.com.’ 

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

Congratulation, you now own that domain for that limited reservation period. Upon the conclusion of your reservation period, your registrar will ask if you wish to renew the domain or let it lapse. If you don’t renew the domain name, it will be made public again and sold on a first-come-first-served basis to another purchaser. 

What happens if you decide you don’t like working with your registrar anymore and wish to change? Easy. You are well within your rights to transfer your domain registration from one registrar to another (though you may need to follow certain procedures set forth in the reservation agreement you entered with your initial registrar). Similarly, what if you purchase 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, typically through a broker.

It’s crucial that you keep your registrar account information and transfer codes secret in the course of either transfer, and in general. 

Once the transfer occurs, or in the unlikely scenario, someone learns your account information, it becomes difficult to get your domain back.

This is because domain registrars often remove themselves from any dispute over domain name ownership and rely on court orders and resolutions provided by a dispute resolution service provider approved by ICANN under the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (“UDRP”). Regardless, it is best practice to keep all information related to your domain safe, secured and only use a trusted vendor so as to not 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] Notably, 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 the need to go through the renewal process. This is somewhat risky in the instance that the domain registrar goes out of business.

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