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NS Internet Column

It never occurred to me to wonder until yesterday morning where all the names come from. You know: things like maxwells.demon.co.uk and hotnthrobbing.com or unfortu.net. Then I set out to buy one for my book, and tumbled into the world of vanity domains. Names on the Internet are worth surprising amounts of money ó I have seen $30,000 quoted for even so dull a name as Jesus2000.com. This is because they are signposts in a largely mapless space, and it turns out that signposts and maps of various kinds are the most valuable things on the Internet. All the really grotesquely overvalued companies are in the business of bringing together wanderers eager for the comfort of a sheepfold with companies who want to fleece them.

This is true even of those companies which, almost as a byproduct of fame, actually sell useful things. Amazon.com was valued by the stock market at $17bn last time I looked, which is something like two thousand times its annual profits. This says two things. First, there has got to be a stock market crash this year; secondly, what people are buying into is not a business but a recognisable name, since very similar services are offered by other online booksellers, and if Amazon went bankrupt tomorrow it wouldnít really affect the price or availability of the books it sells.

For something worth so much, names on the Internet are doled out in a remarkably haphazard fashion. What is really being sold is the link between a name and the sort of address that routing computers understand: four clumps of three digits each, separated by dots, known as an IP address. The last bit of the name is like the last line of the address on an envelope. It specifies where in the strange conceptual space of the Internet your address is found: these "domains" can either say what sort of thing you are (commercial, educational, or whatever) or where in the world your computer is.

Fifteen years ago, setting up these links was just an administrative convenience, and handled by an ad-hoc committee of Americans. Now itís anarchic big business and impossible to understand. But itís still true that the names anyone has heard of (those that end in .com, .net. or .org) are doled out by an American company, Internic, which charges $70 each for them. But they wonít sell a name without an IP address to point at it, so it is simpler to buy some web space at the same time: you end up paying about $100. No wonder they are called vanity domains.

There are now specialist firms like Netnames in London, which will deal with seventy or more domain name registries around the world. This is because almost all the interesting .com names went in the great Internet land rush of 1995 when a few smart people woke up to the fun and profit that could be had by registering names like macdonalds.com . Try thinking of a name you would like to own: it will have gone. Not just the obvious and valuable names, but even most of the good jokes have been bought up. dot.com has gone; so have dotdot.com, dotdotdot.com and even the more literate ellipsis.com, which is less fun to read out loud (I keep one email address which starts "alloneword", largely for the pleasure of giving it out on the phone).

So now that the interesting conceptual names are running out all sorts of people have moved into the business to sell geographical alternatives. A firm called the Tonic Corporation is selling domains in the Kingdom of Tonga. They cost a little more than Internic domains ó but they all end in .to and there are many still free. ot.to has gone. But you could still have pressanykey.to; for the slobbish, toodrunk.to, or you might prefer the more appetising antipas.to.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of grabbing a Swedish or German domain. I could be the owner of improvi.se I could have cheered myself up by buying suici.de. But in the end I remembered that the point of all this showing off was to make it easy for people to find out about the book. So www.darwinwars.com should be mine by the time you read this. Now all I have to do is write the site.

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