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RFC 3071

Reflections on the DNS, RFC 1591, and Categories of Domains

Pages: 10

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Network Working Group                                         J. Klensin
Request for Comments: 3071                                 February 2001
Category: Informational

      Reflections on the DNS, RFC 1591, and Categories of Domains

Status of this Memo

   This memo provides information for the Internet community.  It does
   not specify an Internet standard of any kind.  Distribution of this
   memo is unlimited.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2001).  All Rights Reserved.


RFC 1591, "Domain Name System Structure and Delegation", laid out the basic administrative design and principles for the allocation and administration of domains, from the top level down. It was written before the introduction of the world wide web (WWW) and rapid growth of the Internet put significant market, social, and political pressure on domain name allocations. In recent years, 1591 has been cited by all sides in various debates, and attempts have been made by various bodies to update it or adjust its provisions, sometimes under pressures that have arguably produced policies that are less well thought out than the original. Some of those efforts have begun from misconceptions about the provisions of 1591 or the motivation for those provisions. The current directions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and other groups who now determine the Domain Name System (DNS) policy directions appear to be drifting away from the policies and philosophy of 1591. This document is being published primarily for historical context and comparative purposes, essentially to document some thoughts about how 1591 might have been interpreted and adjusted by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and ICANN to better reflect today's world while retaining characteristics and policies that have proven to be effective in supporting Internet growth and stability. An earlier variation of this memo was submitted to ICANN as a comment on its evolving Top-level Domain (TLD) policies.
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1. Introduction

RFC 1591 [1] has been heavily discussed and referenced in the last year or two, especially in discussions within ICANN and its predecessors about the creation, delegation, and management of top- level domains. In particular, the ICANN Domain Name Supporting Organization (DNSO), and especially its ccTLD constituency, have been the home of many discussions in which 1591 and interpretations of it have been cited in support of a variety of sometimes-contradictory positions. During that period, other discussions have gone on to try to reconstruct the thinking that went into RFC 1591. Those in turn have led me and others to muse on how that original thinking might relate to some of the issues being raised. 1591 is, I believe, one of Jon Postel's masterpieces, drawing together very different philosophies (e.g., his traditional view that people are basically reasonable and will do the right thing if told what it is with some stronger mechanisms when that model is not successful) into a single whole. RFC 1591 was written in the context of the assumption that what it described as generic TLDs would be bound to policies and categories of registration (see the "This domain is intended..." text in section 2) while ccTLDs were expected to be used primarily to support users and uses within and for a country and its residents. The notion that different domains would be run in different ways --albeit within the broad contexts of "public service on behalf of the Internet community" and "trustee... for the global Internet community"-- was considered a design feature and a safeguard against a variety of potential abuses. Obviously the world has changed in many ways in the seven or eight years since 1591 was written. In particular, the Internet has become more heavily used and, because the design of the world wide web has put domain names in front of users, top-level domain names and registrations in them have been heavily in demand: not only has the number of hosts increased dramatically during that time, but the ratio between registered domain names and physical hosts has increased very significantly. The issues 1591 attempted to address when it was written and those we face today have not changed significantly in principle. But one alternative to present trends would be to take a step back to refine it into a model that can function effectively today. Therefore, it may be useful to try to reconstruct 1591's principles and think about their applicability today as a model that could continue to be applied: not because it is historically significant, but because many of its elements have proven to work reasonably well, even in difficult situations. In particular, for many domains (some in 1591's "generic" list and others in its "country code" category) the notion of "public service" --expected then to imply being carried out
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   at no or minimal cost to the users, not merely on a non-profit
   basis-- has yielded to profitability calculations.  And, in most of
   the rest, considerations of at least calculating and recovering costs
   have crept in.  While many of us feel some nostalgia for the old
   system, it is clear that its days are waning if not gone: perhaps the
   public service notions as understood when 1591 was written just don't
   scale to rapid internet growth and very large numbers of

   In particular, some ccTLDs have advertised for registrations outside
   the designated countries (or other entities), while others have made
   clear decisions to allow registrations by non-nationals.  These
   decisions and others have produced protests from many sides,
   suggesting, in turn, that a recategorization is in order.  For
   example, we have heard concerns by governments and managers of
   traditional, "public service", in-country, ccTLDs about excessive
   ICANN interference and fears of being forced to conform to
   internationally-set policies for dispute resolution when their
   domestic ones are considered more appropriate.  We have also heard
   concerns from registrars and operators of externally-marketed ccTLDs
   about unreasonable government interference and from gTLD registrars
   and registries about unreasonable competition from aggressively
   marketed ccTLDs.  The appropriate distinction is no longer between
   what RFC 1591 described as "generic" TLDs (but which were really
   intended to be "purpose-specific", a term I will use again below) and
   ccTLDs but among:

      (i) true "generic" TLDs, in which any registration is acceptable
      and, ordinarily, registrations from all sources are actively
      promoted.  This list currently includes (the formerly purpose-
      specific) COM, NET, and ORG, and some ccTLDs.  There have been
      proposals from time to time for additional TLDs of this variety in
      which, as with COM (and, more recently, NET and ORG) anyone
      (generally subject only to name conflicts and national law) could
      register who could pay the fees.

      (ii) purpose-specific TLDs, in which registration is accepted only
      from organizations or individuals meeting particular
      qualifications, but where those qualifications are not tied to
      national boundaries.  This list currently includes INT, EDU, the
      infrastructure domain ARPA, and, arguably, the specialized US
      Government TLDs MIL and GOV.  There have been proposals from time
      to time for other international TLDs of this variety, e.g., for
      medical entities such as physicians and hospitals and for museums.
      ICANN has recently approved several TLDs of this type and
      describes them as "sponsored" TLDs.
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      (iii) Country domains, operated according to the original
      underlying assumptions of 1591, i.e., registrants are largely
      expected to be people or other entities within the country.  While
      external registrations might be accepted by some of these, the
      country does not aggressively advertise for such registrations,
      nor does anyone expect to derive significant fee revenue from
      them.  All current domains in this category are ccTLDs, but not
      all ccTLDs are in this category.

   These categories are clearly orthogonal to the association between
   the use of the IS 3166-1 registered code list [2] and two-letter
   "country" domain names.  If that relationship is to be maintained
   (and I believe it is desirable), the only inherent requirement is
   that no two-letter TLDs be created except from that list (in order to
   avoid future conflicts).  ICANN should control the allocation and
   delegation of TLDs using these, and other, criteria, but only
   registered 3166-1 two letter codes should be used as two-letter TLDs.

2. Implications of the Categories

If we had adopted this type of three-way categorization and could make it work, I believe it would have presented several opportunities for ICANN and the community more generally to reduce controversies and move forward. Of course, there will be cases where the categorization of a particular domain and its operating style will not be completely clear-cut (see section 3, below). But having ICANN work out procedures for dealing with those (probably few) situations appears preferable to strategies that would tend to propel ICANN into areas that are beyond its competence or that might require significant expansion of its mandate. First, the internally-operated ccTLDs (category iii above) should not be required to have much interaction with ICANN or vice versa. Once a domain of this sort is established and delegated, and assuming that the "admin contact in the country" rule is strictly observed, the domain should be able to function effectively without ICANN intervention or oversight. In particular, while a country might choose to adopt the general ICANN policies about dispute resolution or name management, issues that arise in these areas might equally well be dealt with exclusively under applicable national laws. If a domain chooses to use ICANN services that cost resources to provide, it should contribute to ICANN's support, but, if it does not, ICANN should not presume to charge it for other than a reasonable fraction of the costs to ICANN of operating the root, root servers, and any directory systems that are generally agreed upon to be necessary and in which the domain participates.
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   By contrast, ccTLDs operated as generic domains ought to be treated
   as generic domains.  ICANN dispute resolution and name management
   policies and any special rules developed to protect the Internet
   public in multiple registrar or registry situations should reasonably

3. Telling TLD types apart

If appropriate policies are adopted, ccTLDs operated as generic domains (category (i) above) and those operated as country domains (category (iii) above) ought to be able to be self-identified. There are several criteria that could be applied to make this determination. For example, either a domain is aggressively seeking outside registrations or it is not and either the vast majority of registrants in a domain are in-country or they are not. One could also think of this as the issue of having some tangible level of presence in the jurisdiction - e.g., is the administrative contact subject, in practical terms, to the in-country laws, or are the registration rules such that it is reasonably likely that a court in the jurisdiction of the country associated with the domain can exercise jurisdiction and enforce a judgment against the registrant. One (fairly non-intrusive) rule ICANN might well impose on all top- level domains is that they identify and publish the policies they intend to use. E.g., registrants in a domain that will use the laws of one particular country to resolve disputes should have a reasonable opportunity to understand those policies prior to registration and to make other arrangements (e.g., to register elsewhere) if that mechanism for dispute resolution is not acceptable. Giving IANA (as the root registrar) incorrect information about the purpose and use of a domain should be subject to challenge, and should be grounds for reviewing the appropriateness of the domain delegation, just as not acting consistently and equitably provides such grounds under the original provisions of RFC 1591. In order to ensure the availability of accurate and up-to-date registration information the criteria must be consistent, and consistent with more traditional gTLDs, for all nominally country code domains operating as generic TLDs.

4. The role of ICANN in country domains

ICANN (and IANA) should, as described above, have as little involvement as possible in the direction of true country [code] domains (i.e., category (iii)). There is no particular reason why
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   these domains should be subject to ICANN regulation beyond the basic
   principles of 1591 and associated arrangements needed to ensure
   Internet interoperability and stability.

   ICANN's avoiding such involvement strengthens it: the desirability of
   avoiding collisions with national sovereignty, determinations about
   government legitimacy, and the authority of someone purportedly
   writing on behalf of a government, is as important today as it was
   when 1591 was written.  The alternatives take us quickly from
   "administration" into "internet governance" or, in the case of
   determining which claimant is the legitimate government of a country,
   "international relations", and the reasons for not moving in that
   particular direction are legion.

5. The role of governments

The history of IANA strategy in handling ccTLDs included three major "things to avoid" considerations: * Never get involved in determining which entities were countries and which ones were not. * Never get involved in determining who was, or was not, the legitimate government of a country. And, more generally, avoid deciding what entity --government, religion, commercial, academic, etc.-- has what legitimacy or rights. * If possible, never become involved in in-country disputes. Instead, very strongly encourage internal parties to work problems out among themselves. At most, adopt a role as mediator and educator, rather than judge, unless abuses are very clear and clearly will not be settled by any internal mechanism. All three considerations were obviously intended to avoid IANA's being dragged into a political morass in which it had (and, I suggest, has) no competence to resolve the issues and could only get bogged down. The first consideration was the most visible (and the easiest) and was implemented by strict and careful adherence (see below) to the ISO 3166 registered Country Code list. If an entity had a code, it was eligible to be registered with a TLD (although IANA was free to apply additional criteria-most of them stated in 1591). If it did not, there were no exceptions: the applicant's only recourse was a discussion with the 3166 Registration Authority (now Maintenance Agency, often known just as "3166/MA") or the UN Statistical Office (now Statistics Bureau), not with IANA.
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   There are actually five ccTLD exceptions to the strict rules.  One,
   "UK", is historical: it predates the adoption of ISO 3166 for this
   purpose.  The others --Ascension Island, Guernsey, Isle of Man, and
   Jersey --are arguably, at least in retrospect, just mistakes.
   Regardless of the historical reasons (about which there has been much
   speculation), it is almost certainly the case that the right way to
   handle mistakes of this sort is to acknowledge them and move on,
   rather than trying to use them as precedents to justify more

   This, obviously, is also the argument against use of the "reserved"
   list (technically internal to the 3166 maintenance activity, and not
   part of the Standard): since IANA (or ICANN) can ask that a name be
   placed on that list, there is no rule of an absolute determination by
   an external organization.  Purported countries can come to ICANN,
   insist on having delegations made and persuade ICANN to ask that the
   names be reserved.  Then, since the reserved name would exist, they
   could insist that the domain be delegated.  Worse, someone could use
   another organization to request reservation of the name by 3166/MA;
   once it was reserved, ICANN might be hard-pressed not to do the
   delegation.  Of course, ICANN could (and probably would be forced to)
   adopt additional criteria other than appearance on the "reserved
   list" in order to delegate such domains.  But those criteria would
   almost certainly be nearly equivalent to determining which applicants
   were legitimate and stable enough to be considered a country, the
   exact decision process that 1591 strove to avoid.

   The other two considerations were more subtle and not always
   successful: from time to time, both before and after the formal
   policy shifted toward "governments could have their way", IANA
   received letters from people purporting to be competent government
   authorities asking for changes.  Some of them turned out later to not
   have that authority or appropriate qualifications.  The assumption of
   1591 itself was that, if the "administrative contact in country" rule
   was strictly observed, as was the rule that delegation changes
   requested by the administrative contact would be honored, then, if a
   government _really_ wanted to assert itself, it could pressure the
   administrative contact into requesting the changes it wanted, using
   whatever would pass for due process in that country.  And the ability
   to apply that process and pressure would effectively determine who
   was the government and who wasn't, and would do so far more
   effectively than any IANA evaluation of, e.g., whether the letterhead
   on a request looked authentic (and far more safely for ICANN than
   asking the opinion of any particular other government or selection of
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   Specific language in 1591 permitted IANA to adopt a "work it out
   yourselves; if we have to decide, we will strive for a solution that
   is not satisfactory to any party" stance.  That approach was used
   successfully, along with large doses of education, on many occasions
   over the years, to avoid IANA's having to assume the role of judge
   between conflicting parties.

   Similar principles could be applied to the boundary between country-
   code-based generic TLDs and country domains.  Different countries,
   under different circumstances, might prefer to operate the ccTLD
   either as a national service or as a profit center where the
   "customers" were largely external.  Whatever decisions were made
   historically, general Internet stability argues that changes should
   not be made lightly.  At the same time, if a government wishes to
   make a change, the best mechanism for doing so is not to involve
   ICANN in a potential determination of legitimacy (or even to have
   ICANN's Government Advisory Committee (GAC) try to formally make that
   decision for individual countries) but for the relevant government to
   use its own procedures to persuade the administrative contact to
   request the change and for IANA to promptly and efficiently carry out
   requests made by administrative contacts.

6. Implications for the current ICANN DNSO structure.

The arguments by some of the ccTLD administrators that they are different from the rest of the ICANN and DNSO structures are (in this model) correct: they are different. The ccTLDs that are operating as generic TLDs should be separated from the ccTLD constituency and joined to the gTLD constituency. The country ccTLDs should be separated from ICANN's immediate Supporting Organization structure, and operate in a parallel and advisory capacity to ICANN, similar to the arrangements used with the GAC. The DNSO and country TLDs should not be required to interact with each other except on a mutually voluntary basis and, if ICANN needs interaction or advice from some of all of those TLDs, it would be more appropriate to get it in the form of an advisory body like the GAC rather than as DNSO constituency.

7. References

[1] Postel, J., "Domain Name System Structure and Delegation", RFC 1591, March 1994. [2] ISO 3166. ISO 3166-1. Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions - Part 1: Country codes (1997).
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8. Acknowledgements and disclaimer

These reflections have been prepared in my individual capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of my past or present employers. Several people, including Randy Bush, Theresa Swinehart, Zita Wenzel, Geoff Huston, Havard Eidnes, and several anonymous reviewers, made suggestions or offered editorial comments about earlier versions of this document. Cord Wischhoefer, of the ISO 3166/MA, was also kind enough to look at the draft and supplied some useful details. Those comments contributed significantly to whatever clarity the document has, but the author bears responsibility for the selection of comments which were ultimately incorporated and the way in which the conclusions were presented.

9. Security Considerations

This memo addresses the context for a set of administrative decisions and procedures, and does not raise or address security issues.

10. Author's Address

John C. Klensin 1770 Massachusetts Ave, Suite 322 Cambridge, MA 02140, USA EMail:
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11. Full Copyright Statement

Copyright (C) The Internet Society 2001. All Rights Reserved. This document and translations of it may be copied and furnished to others provided that the above copyright notice and this paragraph are included on all such copies. However, this document itself may not be modified in any way, such as by removing the copyright notice or references to the Internet Society or other Internet organizations, except as required to translate it into languages other than English. The limited permissions granted above are perpetual and will not be revoked by the Internet Society or its successors or assigns. This document and the information contained herein is provided on an "AS IS" basis and THE INTERNET SOCIETY AND THE INTERNET ENGINEERING TASK FORCE DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ANY WARRANTY THAT THE USE OF THE INFORMATION HEREIN WILL NOT INFRINGE ANY RIGHTS OR ANY IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. Acknowledgement Funding for the RFC Editor function is currently provided by the Internet Society.