.CA Domains Not reaching expectations

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Oh, dot-ca. This week, the gatekeepers of the Canadian parts of the Internet celebrated a faintly telling milestone: the registration of the one millionth domain name that ends in “.ca.” They had a banquet and everything. Internet celebrities flew in from across the country to be there. These probably weren’t the Internet celebrities you know – nobody, to the best of my knowledge, set off Diet Coke-and-Mentos rockets – but rather the types who hooked Canada up to the Internet in the first place.

It’s funny, this domain-name nationalism. Back in 1987, when John Demco, a computer administrator at the University of British Columbia, decided to sign Canada up to an emerging new standard of online addresses, there wasn’t much demand. But then, there was hardly any Internet in Canada either, just a collection of isolated university networks that would eventually coalesce into the Net we know today.

The .ca domain has grown with the Internet, and exploded with the advent of the World Wide Web. But for all its successes, the .ca domain still suffers from that most Canadian of afflictions: a conflicted second-fiddle status, next to the behemoth that is .com. That domain, the favourite of Americans and companies around the world, has a cool 76 million names registered, to our one million.

If there’s a truism on the Internet, it’s that everyone wants an address that ends in .com. An address like that means prestige and global stature, which is why it’s almost impossible to get a good one any more. Online startups have long since been reduced to mangling the language in new and exciting ways just to find a free domain name. I was about to suggest “Snuzz.com” as an example of the kind of unfortunate domain name that’s still free, but upon checking, I see that it’s been taken, too.

Not so north of the border! In fact, you could register Snuzz.ca right this instant, because the market for Internet addresses just isn’t as hot. To a certain extent, it’s understandable: Who wants to look provincial on the world stage?

But even where it comes to websites that are by and for Canadians, there’s a pronounced reticence to embrace the .ca. Take national newspapers – institutions that are usually among the first to swathe themselves in local colours to establish their credentials. The great newspapers of Fleet Street have no problem using the British country code. You can read the Times of London at timesonline.co.uk, or the Guardian at guardian.co.uk. In fact, the British have registered upwards of six million .uk addresses. Meanwhile, in Paris, Le Monde is quite happy to slap a “.fr” on its domain name; ditto Le Figaro and Libération.

But the Canadian media won’t go near its own name. Most Canadian media properties buy up both the .ca and .com versions of their names, and simply redirect visitors to the latter address. Who among the constellation of Stars and Suns advertises its website as a “.ca”? Even Canada’s National Newspaper is at theglobeandmail-dot-com, thank you very much.

I heard this attitude for myself when I registered a Canadian name for my own website. A friend scoffed that it was clearly a second-rate address. (Not true. It was merely a second-rate website.) I wouldn’t have paid him much heed, but for the fact that, ever since, people have regularly forgotten that the address ends in a “.ca”, sending e-mail meant for me off to some American server instead. The concept of a .ca website seems anathema to so many around here.

But really, as with anything that smells of national identity, this comes down to the Americans. That’s because America is the world’s other great nation that disdains its own country code.

It’s important to remember that Internet addresses work in a tree-shaped hierarchy. At the top are the “top-level domains” – the part that comes at the end of every website address, like .com, .net, .org, and country codes like .ca or the American .us.

But Americans have no use for the .us addresses. You hardly ever see the things; only 1.4 million of them have been registered. Since America spawned the Internet, it got dibs on the top-level domains at the top of the hierarchy. Sites ending in .gov are reserved for the U.S. government. Sites ending in .mil are reserved for the U.S. military. And American companies, seeing no need to specify their Americanness when the Internet was an American innovation, went straight for the .com names.

This is unbearable to Canadian sensibilities. Under these circumstances, embracing websites that end in .ca would be tantamount to admitting that the United States is larger, older, richer, more powerful, and that Canadians did not in fact invent the Internet. So the Canadian establishment did the only reasonable thing: dive headlong for .com addresses so we wouldn’t look second-rate.

In the end, market forces will make .ca more appealing than it’s been in the past, as I’m sure whoever picks up Snuzz.ca will attest. In the meantime, the rest of us should look at rewiring our biases about the stature of our national address. A domain by any other name would smell as sweet.