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The Three Letters That Run Global Commerce

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The prelude to Chinese New Year was ominous. The very foundation of the Internet quaked across the country.

What we call the Internet is founded on numerous technology standards. Without standards, there is no "information super highway" or Amazon or Facebook.

A week before Chinese New Year, someone spoiled the Chinese Internet core standard that glues all the computers of the Internet together: the Domain Name System (DNS). For hours, most computers throughout China could not connect to any website.

Theories of responsibility abound. Human error? Hacking? Censorship?

Regardless of responsibility, the error resulted in DNS contamination that migrated from computer to computer before it was fixed in under an hour in major cities but it took up to eight hours for the correction to migrate to all the computers in the country.

This Internet outage is an example of the importance of DNS for the everyday operation of the Internet and its security. Why are these three letters -- DNS -- so crucial to global commerce?

The DNS is the Internet's telephone book. It translates domain names like healthcare.gov into the number of a US government computer that runs the now infamous website. Computers, of course, only understand numbers and thus they know each other just by their respective computers' numbers (IP address). Yes, your computer has a unique number -− and every computer that you access knows it.

The 'digital native' generation now knows that, unless you are using a special system, you are not anonymous when surfing the Internet. Privacy is a legacy concept. It's better to think in terms of user (individual and company) data rights.

The DNS phone book helps humans navigate the underlying complexity of the Internet. Humans don't remember long numbers very well. They remember names much better. Hence the invention of DNS for University, government and then corporate email -− well before the proliferation of websites. We humans remember, advertise and record websites and email addresses through their domain names.

Think of where your best friend works. Do you remember the company phone number or the company domain name more easily? Would you prefer typing in an email and website for your friend that includes "192.168.4.268" or an email of janedoe@companyxyz.com and a website of companyxyz.com?

Companies spend thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands, to ensure the domain is simple, memorable and easy to type. It's Branding 101 in the Internet age.

Recently, SiliconRepublic.com reported that Irish technology firm Teamwork PM acquired the domain name Teamwork.com for $675,000. The value of 'digital real estate' is growing, so much so that some companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to apply to an Internet governing authority for the rights to sell or use domains within new top-level domains (TLDs, that is, the parts at the right end of the domain, like ".com") such as ".bar." ".sexy," and ".ski" among many others.

The DNS matters and is vital to global commerce. Imagine if the DNS in the United States were contaminated? Normal emails sent to people, companies and governments would end up elsewhere. Time-sensitive mergers or initial public offerings would be stuck in Internet quicksand. DNS security is fundamental to a secure Internet. To be sure, secure email through systems that enable tracking, message recall and user-defined expiry dates would not go awry. Hence the rapid growth of the secure email industry.

Because the DNS needs to remain so secure, many global organizations such as banks advise people to never click on links found in emails that appear to be from their bank - even if they seem in every way as legitimate domains for the bank. Also, if your password has been comprised, some companies advise users to type in the domain name of the company directly into the address bar of your web browser to reset the password. That is smart advice. However, even that would not have helped the millions of Chinese Internet users without access to websites for hours.

The Internet is about a common global language just as much as it is about technology. Compromise the language, the lingua franca of the digital era -- DNS -- and you compromise global commerce.

The author is grateful for the substantial contributions and editorial review of Bob Seeman, Chair of The RIWI Corporation, former Head of Strategy for Microsoft Network UK, a non-practicing attorney and an electrical engineer.

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