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By Cary Karp - February 2003
Cary Karp, Director of Internet Strategy and Technology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and President of the Museum Domain Management Association, updates us on the developments associated with the designation of an initial group of seven new top-level domains. In particular he informs us of the activity of the Dot-museum Network Information Center which he first raised with us in his article in issue 4.
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In Cultivate Interactive Issue 4, an article appeared under the title, "The Sign on the Door: Establishing a Top-level Museum Domain on the Internet" . This described several years of activity which culminated in the designation of an initial group of seven new top-level domains in late 2000. The article went on to provide a more detailed review of initiatives leading specifically to the one which was reserved for the exclusive use of the museum community: .museum. In the present article, I would like to describe many of the things that have happened in the interim. In particular, the activity of the fledgling Stockholm-based "Dot-museum Network Information Center" mentioned in the earlier article, is now supported by an accompanying measure in the DG-IS program for Cultural Heritage Applications (musEnic - Contract number IST-2001-33538) .
At the beginning of the last decade the Internet was a rather arcane communication tool used almost exclusively by the academic community. The bulk of the content that it sustained was text-oriented and conveyed either as e-mail, via FTP or through the Internet Gopher. Indeed, even the World Wide Web was initially envisioned as a text-only platform. After much discussion of economics, logistics and politics, the Internet was subsequently opened for unrestricted commercial use. The advent of graphic Web browsers and modems fast enough to support relatively easy access to multimedia content further changed the landscape. The stage was thereby set for the extremely rapid development of the Web as we currently recognize it. At the same time, the seeds were sown for what would soon be termed the dot-com craze. Businesses devoid of tangible assets were appearing all over the Web, with nothing to identify them other than a brand consisting exclusively of a domain name such as, www.snazzyname.com.
A domain name marketplace emerged, where attractive names in .com were being sold for staggering prices. The speculative acquisition of domain names became a business in its own right and rapidly led to the distasteful and often outright dishonest practice of domain name hijacking and ransoming. In its wake, the "defensive registration" of domain names became an important aspect of the protection of intellectual property. This, in turn, further inflated the value of speculative trade in domain names. Domain disputes resulted in litigation with such frequency that lawyers began specialising in it.
By the mid-90's, the initial authors of the Domain Name System (DNS) perceived an urgent need for remedial action. In 1996, a proposal was released for the creation of a significant number of new generic (as opposed to national) top-level domains. This was intended to serve two purposes, each based on an assumption. The first was that interest in the defensive registration of brands and trademarks as domain names would wane if the number of top-level domains in which this needed to be done were large enough. The second assumption was that there would be less speculative trading in domain names if the supply of names were radically increased through the availability of a significantly greater selection of top-level domains (TLDs).
A third consideration figured in the discussion of that proposal. This related to the ability to enhance the semantic value of the DNS by the appropriate selection of new TLD "labels". As initially conceived, domain names were only intended to provide a means for the mnemonic association of aggregates of letters, conveniently used by human beings, with the numeric addresses that computers on the Internet use when addressing each other. Domain names were not intended to be based on words or phrases. Despite this, the branding practice described above resulted in domain names frequently consisting of words intended to convey clear meaning about what they designated. The extent to which the semantic aspects of the DNS should be recognised and developed remains a subject of debate among the Internet architects and protocol engineers.
The implementation of the 1996 proposal proved to be a fiercely contentious issue. Without going into its intricacies, the process resulted in "proof of concept" action, intended to establish the basic viability and utility of the envisioned expansion of the TLD name space. One of the concepts to be proven was the value of a TLD label with explicit rather than mnemonic meaning. The basis for this proof of concept was the group of seven TLDs referred to at the outset of this article. The one intended to have the most deliberate semantic focus was .museum.
When the new TLDs were announced, the domain name market was all but frothing. It was expected on all fronts that prospective name holders would immediately embrace the new TLDs. There were, however, a number of contractual formalities that needed to be resolved before the new creations would actually be available for use. Although the initial timetable for the requisite negotiations had envisaged their completion before the end of 2000, as it turned out, the actual process was to take over a year. (In fact, at time of writing, six of the seven have come into operation.) Although unforeseen at its outset, the year 2001 proved to be one of the most dramatic not only in the history of the Internet, but also for the entire IT industry.
With that, the current narrative can now take up where the previous article left off. When the earlier piece was written, there were no clear signs of the incipient rupture of the dot-com bubble with the resulting inversion of the domain name industry. (Space will not be used here to discuss the relationship between these occurrences and the deep slump in the broader IT sector, or the possibility of that, in effect, being the much-feared Y2K disaster.) In any case, the greatest concern of the prospective operator of .museum then, was in finalizing the contract that was needed in order to commence the domain's actual operation.
Nonetheless, matters were on a sure enough footing for the public inauguration of .museum to be held on 4 July 2001 during the ICOM Triennial Conference in Barcelona . The actual contract was signed on 18 October 2001, and .museum became the first of the three sponsored (i.e. restricted for the use of a clearly defined target community) TLDs among the new seven . The domain became fully operational two weeks later. The entire sequence of administrative formalities involved in the establishment of a TLD was not, however, completed with that. An elaborate start-up regimen was specified in the basic contract, requiring a series of subcontracts for various aspects of the domain's technical operation. Nothing further will be said about this, beyond noting that all such action has now been concluded.
Museums began participating actively in the establishment of .museum during the month preceding the event in Barcelona. By the time its doors were fully open on 1 November, the .museum participant base had grown to an encouraging number. Unfortunately, by then it was also becoming clear that the domain name market was no longer what it had once been. The assessments of the expected rate of the new TLD's growth that had been made during the heyday of the IT boom were now in need of revision. It also seemed likely that marketing activity could not be focused simply on advertising the fact that a dedicated TLD had been placed at the disposal of the museum community. Although not as readily apparent at the time, the notion of "community" would prove to be as important as that of "domain name", on the path forward.
Community also figured prominently in the domain's administrative underpinning. Dot-museum is one of the three sponsored TLDs (sTLDs), so-called because the development and enforcement of domain policies is entrusted to a Sponsoring Organisation. A pivotal notion underlying any sTLD is that it serves a well-defined target community and that its sponsor is clearly representative of that community. (Along with .museum in the service of the museum community, are .aero, for the air transport industry, and .coop, for the international cooperative movement.) The .museum sponsor is the Museum Domain Management Association (MuseDoma) , a non-profit organisation that was created by the International Council of Museums  (ICOM) with the support of the J. Paul Getty Trust , specifically for the purpose of preparing and submitting an application for .museum. If it was approved, MuseDoma would then undertake all the duties incumbent upon an sTLD sponsor. It was difficult for anyone to foresee what this might entail in the longer term. The sTLDs were a completely new phenomenon and their introduction was, as previously stated, a proof of concept. On top of that, the sponsoring organisations were all selected on the basis of their position in their target communities. Almost by definition, none had any prior experience specifically in TLD management.
The operators of the unrestricted TLDs could proceed unencumbered by the need for concern with many of the policy issues confronting the sTLD sponsors. All TLD operators did, however, need to devise means for accommodating the changes in the state of the domain name market. This included the operator of the long-established .com/.net/.org aggregate, and representatives of all ten gTLDs (generic top-level domains) began meeting regularly to discuss the many issues of common interest. In this context it became clear that the three sTLDs were going through almost identical experiences in the way their actions were being received by their target communities. The availability of names in a dedicated TLD was not, in itself, quite the compelling force that had been originally predicted. An obvious means for generating the necessary additional impetus would be to promote names in an sTLD not merely as DNS appellations, but as tokens of membership in what, despite everything, were privileged communities. Appropriate marketing action would, therefore, involve calling attention to the significant benefits that could be derived from belonging to such a community, and which could not be obtained in any other way.
During the course of all the action described above, MuseDoma was investigating means for expanding its own organizational scope to include more than its two founding members, The Getty and ICOM. The .museum Charter obligated MuseDoma to operate .museum, "in accordance with community perceptions about the prevailing scope of the field of museum activity" . The basic framework for this was provided by the definitions contained in the ICOM Statutes . It was, however, expected that the operation of the new TLD might require modification of the ground rules at a more rapid pace than the one at which the ICOM Statutes could be adjusted. MuseDoma was therefore established as an open membership organisation. Although there was no alternative to the initial exclusive participation of the Founding Members, it was expected that members of the .museum community with an interest in the on-going development of TLD policies would subsequently join MuseDoma and actively begin steering its further course.
Membership in MuseDoma was not the sole channel through which the museum community could participate in this process. From the outset, an e-mail discussion list provided an open forum  for input and feedback about all aspects of MuseDoma and the operation and policies of .museum. Until now, virtually all discussion about these issues has taken place on-line. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the membership aspect of MuseDoma has not yet adequately been called to the attention of the museums. At present, however, this remains one of the things on the list for future development.
There has, however, been one important addition to MuseDoma's original configuration. The largest part of the preliminary campaign for the creation of .museum between 1996 and 2000 was conducted with the direct support of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm (Naturhistoriska riksmuseet - NRM) . When the new TLD had been fully established and the logistics of its operation and administration became the primary concern, NRM formally joined the MuseDoma organisation and continued to provide office facilities and personnel resources for the .museum operational headquarters. In keeping with general practice, such a facility is termed a Network Information Center - NIC. An equally conventional abbreviated designation for the .museum NIC would be MuseNIC. MuseDoma subsequently began the establishment of this facility in Stockholm, with an obvious first step being the formal inclusion of NRM in the parent organisation.
The formalisation of a European nexus for one of the new gTLDs was a clear step forward in the globalisation of the development of what, for lack of a better term, is often called "Internet governance". Even a moderately detailed description of the political ramifications of the latter concern would easily fill a book. Suffice it to say that the EU had expressed clear interest in closing the gap between Europe and the United States in all aspects of the development and utilization of the Internet. The presence of a new gTLD NIC in an EU member state was not without interest in this regard.
MuseDoma responded to a Fifth Framework call for proposals with an application for an accompanying measure in the DG-IS program for Cultural Heritage Applications. The project was termed "musEnic" and was based on one of the many issues that required the attention of the new European facility: determining a strategic basis for refocusing .museum marketing activity as discussed above, and implementing it through what was termed a series of "awareness campaigns". These were targeted on the community of prospective name holders in .museum, the community of Internet users, and the neighboring communities within the ALM sector (Archives, Libraries, Museums).
The musEnic Project (IST-2001-33538) commenced its action in April 2002 and will run through March 2004. A primary metric of its success will be the number of .museum names that are registered as a result of various awareness events arranged by the project. Another goal is for the archive and library communities to have gained a significant enough understanding of the purpose and value of .museum, for them to be prepared to act toward the creation of similar TLDs for their respective communities in response to a suitable future call for proposals for additional TLDs. The final intention is for the public to ascribe the same meaning to dot-museum as it does, say, to .fr. The latter already says, "France on the Internet". The final project goal is for .museum to be similarly and widely regarded as meaning, "museums on the Internet".
Looking beyond the musEnic Project's current lifespan, a broader cluster of cultural sector TLDs might be established within a Sixth Framework Network of Excellence, or in some extension of the initial action. However this might be formally structured, it could include the three ALM domains, as well as further ones relating to the management of fixed cultural property at monuments and sites. All these would be adjacent to the travel sector which is already one of the most active current lobbyists in anticipation of a call for new TLD proposals in mid-2003. It might also be appropriate for this extended action to concentrate on the establishment of a general set of criteria that prospective operators of new TLDs within the heritage management sector would need to fulfil for the creation of their TLDs without requiring separate response to a call for proposals. The development of a template approach is regarded as highly desirable by the agency responsible for the creation of TLDs, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)  and there will be, like as not, benefits in a European context in taking the lead in this initiative.
Returning to the awareness campaign being directed toward museums, here are descriptions of a few aspects of the message that is being put forward and the means by which this is being done. The first point can be seen either in terms of basic and value-added services provided to a well-bounded community of trust or, more colloquially, as a bunch of cool things that can be done by members of the .museum community that cannot be done by anyone else.
An example of action better described more formally is provided by the increasingly important and ever more contentious issue of Digital Rights Management (DRM). One of the earliest indications of the value of museums in the network environment was the multimedia industry's acquisition of digital publication rights to material derived from museum holdings. The argument was that museums were not in the electronic publishing business and, therefore, could and should sign over the need to worry about such things to commercial agencies. Immediate monetary compensation was offered for what would then be exclusive rights to all future digital publication of, for example, images of the objects in a museum's collections.
Although the commercial value of this action proved to have been significantly misappraised, museums nonetheless subsequently realised the need for full control over the way they are represented on digital media, both on the Internet and otherwise. A museum requires unequivocal means for enabling the user community to distinguish between material provided by the museum, itself, and material derived from that museum's holdings but provided by unsanctioned entities. The latter group may include both overtly exploitative commercial entities and public-minded erudite individuals. In most cases, the need for verifying the origin of museum material will be a matter both of quality insurance and the protection of intellectual property rights.
These basic purposes can be met by an individual museum without pressing need for considering the TLD component of its Internet identity. The situation is entirely different for autonomous museums undertaking collective action which requires means for verifying its shared origin. Although some indication of organised collaboration can be provided by such things as central Web portals, there is no way to insure that users access the underlying material via that gateway. Since each contributing information repository will invariably be labelled with its domain name, a shared domain identity provides a robust way to indicate their commonality. If the TLD in which such activity is conducted is reserved for the use of a clearly defined community, users have a further means for verifying the origin of the material provided. In any case, they can be sure that it originates with bona fide members of that TLD's target community.
If the provision of such information is to be automated through the use of so-called middleware (the infrastructure interposed between applications and underlying network services), a clearly bounded community of trust is an all but essential prerequisite. There are other examples of this in addition to the one just described. In all such cases, a dedicated TLD provides a core element of unparalleled utility. To conclude this part of the discussion, it may be noted that the envisioned network of excellence based on a future cluster of heritage management TLDs, as described above, can also expand the scope and utility of this community of trust.
A controlled name space such as that in .museum can also be of immediate utility to network users in the everyday process of locating information. The naming structure in .museum has a hierarchical basis. Individual museums have names consisting of three labels. (A domain name consists of a sequence of labels separated by dots, with the highest level being at the far right of the name.) The top-level label will invariably be "museum". The second-level label is a generic term describing a museum's disciplinary concern, or a location designator. For example the Music Museum in Ourtown might use one or both of the names, ourtown.music.museum and music.ourtown.museum, as well as names in additional relevant hierarchies.
The reason for this control is simply to ensure that all participating museums can be reasonably certain about getting suitable names with a minimum of dispute. The alternative would be, for example, to give art.museum to the first museum to request it. Although its holder would likely be quite pleased with this, it is also likely that the other art museums in the world would not. The three-label structure provides all participants with an equitable basis for obtaining names of comparable value. Names derived in this manner have the additional utility of providing the user community with useful information about the specific identity of the museums behind them.
A name space controlled in this way has the further advantage of being indexable. Rather than providing examples of this, the reader is referred directly to the public index of second-level names in .museum at: http://index.museum/. This facility was originally intended to show new applicants the second-level labels that were already in use. It soon became apparent that the index also provided a click path along which individual museums could be located. Doing so could, for example, lead to museums with a given area of specialisation, or a list of museums located in a given city.
Users of the well-known Internet directory services may also find .museum to be of immediately utility, not merely in indicating the museum origin of the material found in a search. Many search engines provide means for restricting a search to a specified domain. Readers are encouraged to test this directly using their favorite search engine. A search, for example, on "history museum" should return a large number of documents, leaving it up to the user to decide which of them were provided by actual museums. It is also possible to restrict the search from the outset to documents provided by museums, by using the form "history site:museum". In addition to verifying the source of the material thus located, the smaller number of documents returned in this manner may be useful in itself. (The "site:museum" syntax is supported by the larger search engines in case the results of an individual test are not consistent with those described here.)
The musEnic Project is intended to increase awareness about everything discussed above plus many related issues not described here. A variety of channels are being used to spread this information. One is through presentations at meetings and conferences arranged by the museum and broader ALM communities. Several such awareness events have already taken place and this will be a regular aspect of project activity for its duration. The purpose of this is to generate direct interest in the acquisition and use of .museum names.
A smaller number of dedicated conferences are being planned for representatives of associations and other agencies that have leadership or governmental involvement in the museum sector. The purpose of these is to determine appropriate modes for accommodating the often significantly different regional bases for coordinating museum activity. The expected outcome is the ability of the participants in these events to cascade information, conveying the .museum message to their own constituencies.
Beyond this, marketing devices such as direct mailing and insertion leaflets in professional journals are also to be tested. The stand-alone events will also be webcast and some of them may be conducted solely in an on-line forum.
Firmly establishing the museum community's labelled niche on the Internet requires active support of the .museum initiative. MuseDoma 's efforts, not least through the musEnic Project, can do little more than enable further action that can only succeed if museums actively harness the potential that has been provided. It is to be hoped that the preceding material has generated the momentum necessary to send its readers to http://musedoma.museum/ and from there to obtaining and using their names in .museum.
Director of Internet Strategy and Technology
Swedish Museum of Natural History
Phone: +46 8 5195 4055
Cary Karp is Director of Internet Strategy and Technology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and President of the Museum Domain Management Association.
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For citation purposes:
Karp, C. "The Further Adventures of the .museum Top-level Internet Domain", Cultivate Interactive, issue 9, 7 February 2003
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