What’s in a domain?
The Catholic Church is about to find out.
Each year in early August, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles sponsors “C3TC,” the Catholic Communication Collaboration Technology Conference, which brings in dozens of speakers to offer workshops on different tech-related issues for absolutely anyone in the archdiocese.
This year’s keynote speaker was Paul Twomey, an Australian-American Catholic who has spent his career working in various tech-related endeavors, including seven years as the president and C.E.O. of Icann, the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.” That organization may sound unfamiliar, but it affects every day of our lives. Icann is the nonprofit body that oversees the internet’s Domain Name System, whereby every website gets its own particular name, and those names are then organized and subdivided around domain extensions like .com, .edu and .org (officially called “top-level domains” or T.L.D.s).
As such, Icann is responsible for the smooth operation of our digital highways. And not only that but their ongoing creation: What began as seven top-level domains has in the last decade exploded into thousands of unique domain extensions approved by Icann from private applications.
These new domains are as varied as their number. Some try to capture a certain lifestyle—so .bar describes itself as “a simple and universal way of representing the online home for fun and social engagement.” Others, like .hamburg, .college or .ngo organize around locations or particular kinds of institutions. Still others, like .vote, want to become the central place for specific public services.
Many are clearly business ventures, hoping to cash in on the possibility that organizations or individuals will want a custom domain that describes their ventures and/or draws attention to them. (Yes, there is a .sex T.L.D.)
But not every new top-level domain is for profit. Which brings us to why Twomey was speaking at a Catholic tech event. Having been, as The New York Times once called him, “the C.E.O. of the internet,” Twomey knew that these new top-level domains would be an important step in the evolution of the world wide web. So he reached out to the Vatican and helped them craft an application to establish .catholic.
Twomey described the unusual nature of the church’s application; the Vatican was almost certainly the only institution that offered citations to the first century to help establish the authenticity of its claim to administer a new domain. He also noted an unexpected outcome to the process: When Icann decided to pick by random ballot which of its successful applicants would be the first new top-level domain awarded not only was the winner .catholic, it was the Chinese form of the word. (The church’s application included registration of the Latin, Chinese, Cyrillic and Arabic versions of .catholic.) Not exactly the statement a secular, international organization might have wanted broadcast across the internet.
In its petition the Vatican described “.catholic” as “an authoritative space to provide legitimate church related content.” The new domain will only be available to institutions approved by the Vatican.
How exactly will that Vatican-overseen approval process work? What is the range of material that will be accepted as constituting “legitimate church related content” and who will be making that judgment?
For the moment, answers are unclear. The church’s application put the authority in the hands of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications (now the Secretariat of Communications). But given the sheer scale of the task it seems likely that at least some of that responsibility will be delegated to local bishops. That could mean that in some places .catholic becomes an online version of an imprimatur.
It makes absolute sense that .catholic will only be available to institutions—imagine the workload if any Catholic around the world could apply? But an unfortunate side effect of that limitation is the pre-Vatican II-like separation it creates between Catholics and Catholic institutions and/or hierarchy, as though the people of God were not the church.
What might .catholic do to the ecosystem of Catholic perspectives one finds online? Perhaps nothing; again, the church’s top-level domain only applies to institutions. And it could very well be the kind of thing the church offers as a service rather than demands as a requirement. Also, the internet is nothing if not fluid and decentralized.
But much of our interaction with the internet happens via Google. If you want to find something or learn something, you Google it. And Google results today are largely influenced both by the past searches of the user and what is more broadly popular in searches of the moment. That means if Google “thinks” that you’re Catholic, it may very well highlight approved .catholic sites over those of other groups, and not only that but of sites hosted by Catholic individuals in general. And the more people Google sends to .catholic sites, the higher they’ll rise in the ranks.
Of course, that web-focusing is also a huge potential asset of .catholic. Via this new domain, the church creates a clearer path for people to find and interact with it and for its institutions to communicate their mission. Ideally, when you come to a .catholic site, you should be addressed by the welcoming mercy of Jesus Christ.
The reality of .catholic is of course still to be seen. And if life online teaches anything, it’s that people’s actual practice will always surprise. Sometimes that’s for the worse; undoubtedly someone will figure out a way to use .catholic to try to undermine the church. Because the internet.
But sometimes the surprise can be for the better too. As the church makes its way into this new and interesting venture, one hopes we continue to recognize that online as elsewhere, Christ, in the words of Hopkins, “plays in ten thousand places.”
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.