Thursday, March 13, 2003

In what country would you expect to find the internet site www.dra.hmg.gb?

When a country becomes independent, there are various symbols of nationalism that countries like to have. Some of these are things like national airlines, national currencies, embassies in foreign capitals, foreign embassies in their capitals, membership of international organisations such as the UN, and so on. More recently, some of these have been separate identities in communication systems, the most important of which (until now) has been an international country code in the global telephone system. (Due to poor administration, the International Telecommunications Union ran out of codes for European countries in the 1970s, and a number of small European countries had to share codes with nearby larger countries until the end of the cold war, when the codes that had been used by East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were released. Each of these two digit codes were replaced with ten three digit codes, everybody in Europe who wanted a distinct code got one, and there are now plenty of codes still free for new countries). More recently, an internet country code has become almost as important. Jay Manifold reports that the .af code for Afghanistan is now active.

Standard practice is for countries to use the International Standards Organisation's standard ISO-3166-alpha-2 for their internet country code. This is a standard list of two letter codes used to refer to countries. These were invented in the 1970s and are used for all sorts of purposes, but internet country codes is probably where they are now most commonly seen. The use of these codes to designate the country of origin of websites is actually quite recent: it dates from the late 1980s. Prior to this, the internet only existed in a small number of countries, and was quite fragmented. Not all of the predecessor networks of the internet were connected to each other all the time, and not all used the internet protocol. Virtually all networks could communicate with each other in order to send e-mail, but their ability to handle other applications was more limited.

Prior to the late 1980s, such things as country code names were developed on an ad hoc basis, largely due to the complete lack of any kind of regulation of anything to do with the internet. The people using the predecessor networks of the internet in particular countries decided for themselves what they used.

In the UK, the key network was called "JANET", which stood for "Joint Academic Network". This involved a lot of UK developed technology that was different from that used in the US, and when the question of a code for the UK came up, the code that was chosen was "uk". This may sound logical, but in some ways it wasn't. When the ISO developed the system of two letter country codes in the 1970s, both the United Kingdom and the Ukraine wanted the code "uk". (For curious cold war reasons, although the Ukraine was part of the USSR, it had its own UN seat and some of the normal symbols of nationhood, although you couldn't seriously argue it was a real country). In order to avoid World War 3 (or something) the ISO decided that neither of then would get to be "uk" and that the United Kingdom would be "gb" and Ukraine would be "ua".

This of course is not ideal in the UK, because "gb" is obviously short for "Great Britain" which does not strictly include Northern Ireland, and this point can be controversial. When JANET needed a code, they therefore chose "uk". There was no directive at that point telling them what they had to use, so they used the one they were most comfortable with. (They were not the only country to use a non-standard code. Australia at one point used "oz").

When, in the late 1980s, there was an internationally made decision that country codes should standardise on the ISO codes, Britain was told to change to "gb". Britain almost entirely ignored this. But not entirely. A small number of organisations did in fact start using the "gb" code. Most notably, the Defence Research Agency started using the domain "dra.hmg.gb". At this point, the government was largely unaware of the existence of the internet, so there was no requirement that government agency websites fit into any particular domain, and the DRA (later renamed DERA) could decide this entirely for itself. When the government did gain such knowledge, the geeks at the DRA could tell the bureacrats that "we are more technically competent than you, so go away", and I suspect they did that. Thus Britain for some time had two codes, "uk" and "gb". Given that "gb" was the ISO code, the DERA could reasonably convincingly claim that they were using the correct code and everyone else was wrong. (Of course the registration infrastructure grew up around the "uk" domain, and this eventually was recognised as an exception, so this claim was less convincing as the years went on. After a while they started using dra.hmg.gb and dera.gov.uk in parallel).

There is something quite British about this. The vast majority of the country insists on doing something a particular way, but a small minority does it a different way I think largely because they insist on being eccentric.

And this was where we were until last year. From time to time I would tell people that "uk" was wrong and that it should be "gb", they would laugh at me, and I would show them the DRA site and they would be puzzled by this. (You don't believe me? Some of the history is Link1here). That was what I was planning to do today: point out that the official code for the UK was in fact "gb" and that everyone is wrong. However, when I looked for "www.dra.hmg.gb", it turned out it was gone.

A little research tells me that a couple of years ago the government decided to privatise most of the DERA, and it was split into a private company called Qinetiq and a small government owned core called the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory or DSTL. One sad consequence of this was that the "dra.hmg.gb" domain was no more. This was switched off towards the end of 2002, and there are no longer any organisations using the "gb" top level domain. There will be no authorisation for the issue of any new "gb" domains, so "uk" is now the only official country code for the United Kingdom.

(Some other day, I might explain how British e-mail addresses used to be backwards. But that is another story).

1 comment:

id said...

I have to agree with DERA, that using the ISO 3166 code is the correct thing to. However, I do not aggree with the code itself as it is nonsensical. Now that some countries in the UK have a devolved parliament, I wonder if they will get their own ccTLDs (Scotland for example).

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