Canada's Internet domain registry celebrating quarter century mark

TORONTO – How much can two letters accomplish in 25 years? Enough to become an entire country’s online home and electronic national brand.

Few Canadians may have understood the significance of the .ca top level domain when it first came into being in 1987, but a quarter century later, few are left in any doubt.

The Canadian government, the bulk of the country’s academic institutions and hundreds of sites that fuel national e-commerce are just a few of the two million domains that have chosen to append the .ca suffix to the end of their websites.

It attracted only eight applicants when it was first conceived, but has now grown to become the 14th largest registry out of 250 worldwide, according to the Canadian Internet Regulation Authority (CIRA) which oversees the network.

The man behind the .ca registry little envisioned such growth when he set out to carve out Canada’s niche in cyberspace.

John Demco, then a computer science student at the University of British Columbia and now an industry consultant, said his decision to create the .ca suffix was driven largely by patriotism and a desire to make research easier.

In 1987, the Internet was still largely an abstract concept confined to the corridors of the world’s government institutions and research facilities. The few thousand machines that were plugged into the idea, he said, were connecting to the evolving web using a number of different networks that were all incompatible with one another.

Demco felt a uniquely Canadian top-level domain would smooth communications for researchers across the country while establishing the country’s cyber-identity.

“I saw the domain name system, and the .ca name in particular, as maybe part of the beginnings of a way to bring the disparate groups together,” Demco said in a telephone interview.

Eight months after the .ca suffix was established on May 14, 1987, Demco began accepting applications from other institutions that wanted to join the fledgling network.

The University of Prince Edward Island was the first to snap up a .ca address, followed shortly by five other universities and two research labs.

That day, Demco said, marked the start of a growth period that intensified with each passing year.

As the Internet became more cohesive and worked its way into more Canadian households, Demco watched his two-letter project grow to encompass some of the country’s most prominent institutions.

As new organizations signed on, Demco and a team of volunteers found themselves constantly adjusting their policies to accommodate the influx of applications.

One rule stating domain names must consist of at least three letters was jetisoned when Canadian National Railway Co. launched its website at When companies began presenting arguments for having both a French and English language website, the volunteers revised the policy stating organizations could only register one domain name at a time.

The steady stream of applications kept the team busy until they found themselves putting in full-time hours on what was supposed to be a part-time volunteer project, Demco said. The need for a full-time organization that would handle the administrative and infrastructure demands of the burgeoning network was clear.

“It was becoming not only a worthwhile thing to do, but important to the country economically,” he said. “We thought it was important that it would be self-sufficient.”

CIRA assumed control of the .ca registry in 2000 and set about establishing a sound network that would keep domains online through any adversity.

That network shepherded the top-level domain through everything from routine Internet attacks to the eastern seaboard blackout of 2003, said CIRA chief executive Byron Holland.

The organization has now established nine centres nationwide to administer and develop the registry, he said, adding such a complex infrastructure is necessary to cope with demand from some of the world’s most avid online users.

“Canadians generally speaking are a very wired group,” he said. “As a country, we’re significant consumers of the Internet. And as such we’re relatively well educated and have a significant number of domain names.”

Holland said the .ca suffix has become a national symbol in the online world _ an electronic equivalent of the maple leaf.

The brand recognition of the top-level domain has given rise to a number of creative websites over the years, he said, adding none of them are “fit to print.”

Holland credits Demco for much of the registry’s success, but the founder himself is more inclined to chalk it up to the lucky outcome of a successful experiment.

“People try all kinds of things, especially if you’re doing experimental work of various kinds. Some things work and some things don’t, and this happened to be something that did.”