Move over, dot-com — get ready for dot-anything.
The group that governs Internet domain names is opening up the system so that companies and organizations can apply to create their own versions of .com, .org or .gov. Under the new rules, instead of a coke.com, Coca-Cola might control the domain .coke and assign Web addresses such as drink.coke or bottle.coke.
The Marina del Rey group known as ICANN called it "one of the biggest changes ever" to the way the Internet's naming system works. With the domain expansion, the group of 22 existing suffixes — many of which were established in the early 1980s — could quickly balloon to hundreds or thousands. ICANN said more recognizable addresses would allow Web users to find what they're looking for more quickly.
Nonprofit groups could reserve the .school domain and hand out addresses to every elementary school. Cities could consolidate their websites to .nyc or .losangeles. And interest groups could stake out their own corner of the Web: .car for auto enthusiasts, .law for attorneys, and .food for restaurants.
"Today's decision will usher in a new Internet age," said Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of ICANN's board of directors, in a statement following the group's approval of the expansion Monday in Singapore. "We have provided a platform for the next generation of creativity and inspiration."
But with a price tag of $185,000, creating a new domain won't be cheap or easy. ICANN — short for the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers — will make the final decisions on new domains. The group requires that applicants be "established public or private organizations," with the necessary technical capability to keep a domain running.
ICANN's announcement drew criticism from those who disputed the value of expanding the already complicated Internet naming system, including those that said the move would mostly benefit the nonprofit ICANN and the for-profit companies, like GoDaddy.com and VeriSign Inc., that sell Web addresses. Some also questioned whether the new domain system would make navigating the Web any easier.
"The naming system is not a search engine," said Joe Touch, the director of USC's Postel Center, an Internet research group named after Jon Postel, who co-designed the Internet naming system in the early 1980s. "If you want to find Ford, you should type 'ford' into Google or Bing — trust me, it'll work."
A number of industry associations are also worried that, with a proliferation of new addresses, consumers could be confused about who owns the site they're visiting. If the music industry opened a .records domain name, both Apple Inc., which sells music on iTunes, and Apple Corps Ltd., the Beatles' music publisher, might vie for the rights to apple.records. How will the music industry decide who gets the address?
Trademark attorneys argue that with each new suffix, companies would be forced to defend their brands against legions of impostors. If names like .search, .phone and .maps were successfully created, Google Inc. might be forced to protect its brand name by paying to register google.search, google.maps and google.phone.
ICANN has "opened the floodgates," said Scott Bain, an attorney at the Software and Information Industry Assn., which lobbied for more limited and deliberate expansion of the name system. "Now the Internet space is going to expand a hundredfold and nobody knows what's going to happen. Intellectual property owners will have to spend a lot of money and time to enforce their rights."
Others see plenty of potential for a more refined naming system.
Constantine Roussos, a Los Angeles entrepreneur, wants to register .music on behalf of the music industry. Under his plan, only legitimate, professional artists could be approved for a .music suffix. If fans typed in ladygaga.music or queen.music, he says, they would know they were getting authentic sites rather than pirates or imitators that are frequently found in .com and .net domains.
"When you buy music, you want it to be a legitimate sale — you want to know the website you're visiting is secure and trusted and it's actually the band," he said, adding that he has spoken to music industry officials but has not yet received their official support.
ICANN has been planning the naming expansion for much of the last decade. The group, which has been the steward of the Internet's naming system since 1998, said it would begin accepting applications in January.
Internet observers expect that the initial expansion might bring 500 new options for site suffixes, which are called generic top-level domain names (or gTLDs). There are only 22 now, including the original eight, (.com, .edu, .gov, .int., .mil, .net, .org and .arpa).
Since 2000, ICANN has added 14 top-level domains, including .biz, .info and .jobs. Few of the new names have caught on, with .com remaining the standard across many industries. Still it can be difficult and expensive to find new .com names, with the most desirable long ago snapped up by companies, individuals and speculators who stockpile names in hopes of selling them to the highest bidder.
But those speculators, known as "domainers," say the new system won't diminish the value of existing Web addresses that they are selling. After all, the recently added domains like .biz and .info never really caught on.
"Domainers, are you worried that your .com beachfront property values will be lost?" Michael H. Berkens, editor of the blog site the Domains, asked his readers recently. "Don't think so."