Everything You Need to Know About .Gov Domains

Update: In February 2015, we were writing about how to choose and buy a domain for your town. In this post, we are pointing out an important change in domain registration which is set to take place early next year and it will particularly affect towns who prefer government domain names.

The .gov domain is a prestigious top-level domain restricted to government entities. It comes at a price, and that price is set to increase from $125/yr to $400/yr on January 1st, 2017. The fee will be the same for new registrations and for annual renewals. The fee increase takes account of the increased operational costs of maintaining the .gov top-level domain, which hasn’t been increased since 2003. Of course, towns are not limited to .gov domains, but they are often preferred for their official reputation.

What’s a Domain Name?

First of all, if you’re wondering what a domain is, here is a brief description. A domain name is the name that you choose for your website and is followed by .com, .org, .gov and other variations. Once you register it to your website, users can reach your website by typing this domain name into the browser’s address bar (eg. www.townwebdesign.com).

Only one person/company can own a domain name at any one time. So if you want ‘www.domainnames.com’ but someone else has it, you will need to either find another name or offer to buy it from them. Another option is to wait for it to expire and hope they don’t re-register it, but you could be waiting a long time!

Read our blog post on how to choose and buy a domain for your town for more information.

The History of the .Gov Domain

The most popular web domain is the ubiquitous .com because it’s easy to remember and sounds legitimate. Other domain addresses, such as .biz and .net, can be difficult to remember or sound less professional. However, the .gov domain is a government-specific top-level domain which comes with the Federal seal of approval and inherent legitimacy.

It was first established in 1985 as a generic top-level domain (TLD) for government entities in the United States. The USA is the only country to have established a government top level domain. This is the direct result of the U.S. federal government’s role in sponsoring a  research network to create the Internet. Other countries usually delegate a second-level domain for this purpose, such as .gov.co.uk in the United Kingdom. The website for domain name registration has been administered by the General Services Administration (GSA) since 1997.

In 2003, the GSA codified existing guidance and best practice methods for domain management and applied them across governmental and non-governmental bodies. They expanded the .gov domain to permit inclusion of state, local, and tribal governments (SLTTs). All governments in the U.S. were allowed to apply for delegations in gov before May 2012, but then the Federal Executive Branch changed its policy. Now it will only register second-level domains for its agencies on a case-by-case basis. Agencies are also prohibited from using other top-level domains such as .org and .com.

The first .gov domain name was registered to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA was responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. These technologies included the Internet and DARPA-funded projects have influenced many non-military fields like computer networking. These days, any government entity such as courts, police departments and local authorities can apply for a .gov domain.

.Gov Domain Controversies

Domain misuse has long been a contentious issue. The .gov domain is more susceptible controversial issues, misguidance and public confusion. The problem stems from people’s habit of searching for words with a .com suffix by default. If the government body doesn’t own both the.gov and the .com, then it’s a free-for-all and anyone can buy similar domains.

The most infamous example is that of the www.whitehouse.com debacle where a porn website was frequently confused with the official White House website. The website was owned by Daniel Parisi from 1997 until he eventually sold it in 2004 citing fears that his son’s peers might taunt him once he started school. In fact, he was right to be concerned; his site drew more than 2 million visitors each month and some of them were children who stumbled upon the website by accident when doing school projects.

It’s natural for internet users to type the more common .com than the official .gov of the www.whitehouse.gov and many web browsers simply add ‘.com’ to the end of an address if no suffix is entered into the address bar. In the meantime, the website had earned Parisi a cool $1 million a year. These days, the website is ‘parked’ and earning revenue from sponsored listings which mostly link to dating agencies.

The satirical whitehouse.org domain (now changed to whitehouse.georgewbush.org) was a similar nuisance to the White House. Created by Chickenhead Productions in 2001, but first registered six years earlier, it parodied of George W. Bush and his administration – although it didn’t get any laughs from the White House.

Another minor controversy occurred in June 2015 when Powhatan County, Virginia bought the domain PowhatanVa.com and citizens questioned the acquisition. Powhatan County won the auction on May 19 with a bid of $1,630 and defended the purchase by claiming that if they hadn’t bid on it someone else would have. The County had been inundated with complaints from citizens and others who had been confused because they thought the .com web address was the county’s official site. When the County acquired the new site, all traffic was redirected to the official www.PowhatanVa.gov site.

It’s worth considering owning both the .com and .gov domains to prevent copycat websites that could damage your brand or spread misinformation.

Pros and Cons of a .Gov Domain

The big advantage of a .gov domain is that it adds legitimacy and credibility to your website. The gov domain is associated with well-known federal agencies like NASA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and USA.gov. Visitors know that it can be trusted because of its bureaucratic classification and inherent official backing. The branding can help the web user easily identify what you do or the county in which you do it. For example, a private company with the same name as your town could have a .com website but they couldn’t have a .gov one.

As mentioned earlier, similar-sounding domain names could be used for nefarious or unethical purposes. Citizens could be misled to visit the wrong website, which would not only divert traffic from the official one but could potentially undermine your reputation. Another disadvantage is the relative expense and the more complicated paperwork. Buying other domains is a simple 5-minute process of registering your details and adding your credit card information.

How to Register a Dot Gov Domain

The General Services Administration’s website administers .gov registrations at http://www.nic.gov. At the Network Information Site, you will need to create an account with your contact details and those of your authorizing authority. It’s possible to search for available domain names by entering your desired name and seeing if it’s available. If that name is not available, consider variations using ‘village’, ‘county’ and ‘town’, such as townof[name].gov.

Towns must submit a letter of authorization to the GSA. All the relevant instructions, rules, and forms can be found here. Domains for cities require authorization from the mayor or equivalent official. Counties need authorization submitted by county commissioners or by the highest-ranking county official. After receipt of the authorization letter and DNS test pass (each domain must have at least one domain name server), the GSA will send you an email with payment instructions. The billing point of contact must then pay for the domain with a credit card.

As long as all the submitted information is accurate, the process can be completed within 48 hours. The GSA send a registration confirmation notice within one business day after you register your domain name. If your information is accurate and complete, you will receive a second notice on the same day or one business day later informing you that all of your information is in order.

The majority of requests take up to 30 days because the Chief Information Officer (CIO) needs time to approve them before handing them back to the registrar. Confirmation will be sent to you once your domain name has been activated.

In case you sent the wrong information or the registrar deems you ineligible for a .gov domain, your registration will be rejected. The GSA will send you a notice stating the reason for rejection.

If you have any questions throughout the registration process, contact the .Gov Helpdesk at [email protected] or (877) 734-4688.

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