The Beginning of Control

Posted on December 31, 2013
Tags: personal information control privacy

Tim Lavoie

To take control of your online life, you must start with your identity. You know who you are, and so do your friends and family. When they address you, it is your name that is most often used, with perhaps a nickname or two for short. The same principle applies to Internet-connected systems, from which we can run web and mail hosting for instance. The addresses which are used to make the connection are numeric, not the human-readable (and memorable) domain names most of us are familiar with. For instance, this site is currently running at an IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) address of “93.95.227.245”. Each of these four numbers has to be between 0 and 255, and in this address format, there are always four numbers. There is also a newer IP version called IPv6, which has much longer addresses to be able to handle exponentially more devices. In any case, you don’t really need to know or remember the address, as “fractaldragon.net” is sufficient to be able to find the numeric form which is what actually works for connecting.

Where I’m going with this is that I got tired years ago of having my email address changed out from under me at the whims of my Internet service provide. One of them would have been something like “tlavoie@pangea.ca”, though I’d have to rummage through old disks to be sure. Anyway, the point of this is that the first part (“tlavoie”) would be assigned by them, and the latter part (“pangea.ca”) was the domain name which would be used to reach a server running email hosting software. This was all fine and dandy, except for a couple things; first, the choice on the user name is limited by availability and what has already been taken, and second, the latter part will change over time. In this case, Pangea.ca (a local ISP) disappeared in a series of acquisitions and mergers of other ISPs, and eventually you are expected to get an address using whatever form the resulting company has decided on for you. Even when the company doesn’t really change, their choice of online identity becomes the non-choice imposed upon you, with the result that you have to keep modifying your contact information with others. Imagine if your town had this habit, so that while you continue to live in the same place, you have to keep updating all of your postal information with some new name to keep getting mail.

Additionally, I had decided that it was not important that my email address reflect the current choice in Internet providers connecting me to the outside world. Using their address is a form of lock-in, because you will have to repeat the process to move to a different company, whether the wires used are the same or not. The same can apply to hosted email which uses the company’s current branding, such as “hotmail.com” addresses becoming “live.com”. Maybe the old address continues to work, but again, that’s not something you have any control over.

To begin this process, you need your own domain name. The suffix part (“.net” in my case) ties at least potentially to a national identity if it ends in the code representing your country, or one of the other top-level domain (or “TLD) suffixes such as .com, .net, and so on. These other TLDs have notional relationships with the type of organization, such as .com representing commercial organizations. To make your choice, you must select a domain registrar. These companies provide a web interface for you to use to look for available names, so that you can register your choice through them for one or more years. Many companies provide this service, so don’t feel pressured to use the first one you find. Once you select a name, you provide some contact information, and pay them for the time period you would like to use.

Now what? Do I have a web site, or an email address? Probably not, though it may be an option for those that provide an all-in-one solution. It may even be a good start if they do, but you aren’t wedded to their hosting forever, which is precisely the point. At the very least, you have some sort of admin interface which lets you assign your host name to whatever numeric address is appropriate. You likely don’t have one yet, but what you do have is a toe-hold to build upon to establish whatever you care to build.