British registry Nominet has launched a consultation on whether .UK should be opened up at the top level under a scheme called direct.uk. Currently, registrations are only allowed at the second level, .CO.UK being Britain's main Internet suffix.
The question really isn't should this be done. The question is: why has it taken so long to get here?
The new gTLD effect
Britain opened its namespace in 1985 (Nominet was born much later, in 1996) and thus counts as a DNS (Domain Name System) veteran. But since then, in a world of increasingly shorter country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) and increasingly stiffer competition between the generic and country code spaces, the United Kingdom has remained idiosyncratic by sticking to its .CO.UK guns.
So times may now be a changin'. Nominet has set its consultation deadline at Monday 7 January 2013. It will then collate the statements received and announce how it plans to release the UK's top level domain, undoubtedly some time in 2013.
Why now? Think new gTLDs. Many existing TLDs are scrambling to update in the light of a possible onslaught of a thousand plus new gTLDs coming in the next couple of years.
So even though .CO.UK remains one of Europe's most prominent suffixes and ranks second only to Germany's .DE as the country code sporting the highest number of registrations with more than 10 million names, Nominet is readying itself for a new era of intense competition where suffixes will have to innovate to stay relevant.
To give .UK the specificity it needs to avoid being seen as just a money-making scheme to get existing .CO.UK registrants to double up on .UK domains, Nominet is looking to make .UK all about security and strong links to the United Kingdom.
"Our vision is to create a secure, trusted space and in turn increase take-up of online presence amongst British businesses," Nominet says.
So to get a .UK, prospective registrants will have to provide a UK address. Nominet is proposing to check these details, and re-check them at certain key moments in the domain's life, such as renewals or transfers. If this sounds familiar, that's because these suggestions are very similar to the ones law enforcement agencies are making to ICANN for the generic namespace. Nominet has no doubt talked to British law enforcement before hatching its .UK plan.
The verification method may have registrars and domain buyers worried. Registrants would be called upon to respond to an email in order to get a domain activation PIN… which would be sent by post to their UK address! There are simpler ways to authenticate an address in the digital age, but Nominet seems intent on putting quality above quantity here.
Safe, or just complicated and expensive?
So users of .UK would be certain that they are dealing with a domain operator that has a registered address in the UK. Nominet feels this will greatly boost user confidence, but also wants to see .UK come with concrete security measures.
The registry is proposing to carry out routine monitoring of .UK domains and would warn domain owners if their piece of Internet real-estate is infected or compromised in a way that could be harmful to other Internet users. Such domains would be suspended if the problem was not remedied swiftly by the owner.
Nominet also wants to force all .UK domains to be DNSSEC signed. The Domain Name System Security Extensions is designed to help prevent DNS server hijacking which can lead to Internet users being rerouted to rogue websites without their knowledge. The fact that Nominet wants to make DNSSEC mandatory for all .UK domains will be welcomed by some (those who have fought for years to see this technology gain widespread use) and will horrify others. DNSSEC has so far proved difficult to deploy and may put undue strain on .UK domain registrants.
If snail mail verification and DNSSEC aren't enough to put people off .UK, then the proposed registry price, at more than three times what registrars currently pay for .CO.UK domains, might.
But it's easy to criticize. The truth is that in suggesting this idea, Nominet is rising to the new gTLD challenge by refusing to offer more of the same.
After all, what would have been the point of making .UK a .CO.UK look-alike? "Not all existing registrants would want or need the features we are proposing to include in the new service," Nominet points out. "We believe that the introduction of a new secure .uk service via the second level could operate effectively alongside domain names registered in the third level (i.e. under a second level TLD like .CO.UK)."
In effect, Nominet is touting .UK as a premium namespace. Access to it will be more expensive, more complicated, but it will offer greatly enhanced security and the knowledge that each and every single registrant has been authenticated.
Yes, as presented in the consultation, the plan may need some tweaking. But to this English domain user, the idea of a shorter, safer and more intuitive namespace for the UK sounds like a no-brainer.
Written by Stéphane Van Gelder, Registry Relations and Strategy Director, NetNames
2 October 2012
Article also in CircleID