Domain name shakeup may bring new net goldrush
Internet domains are all set to have a major revamp. They have been dominated for more than a decade by dotcoms, dotnets and dotcodotuks. That could all change, however, with a new scheme to liberalise the way websites are named, creating a whole new generation of addresses such as .bank, .sport and .news.
Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the group which oversees the way the internet is organised yesterday announced its plans to open up the so-called "top-level domain" names to cope with a variety of new options, potentially creating a new internet goldrush as buyers bid to register the most popular names.
The decision, passed unanimously by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), was described by the organisation's president, Paul Twomey, as "the biggest change to the way people find each other on the internet since its inception".
"Apart from the .com, .net or .org, 1.3 billion web users will be able from early 2009 to acquire generic addresses by lodging common words such as .love, .hate or .city, or proper names," he said.
The plans have been incubating for some time, with Icann spending more than three years and $10m (£5m) putting the technology in place to support the change in the system.
At first it is likely these new suffixes will be limited to certain businesses and other major organisations such as city councils. Officials in Berlin are among those who have vociferously campaigned for the new rules, believing that selling .berlin web addresses would have a positive impact for tourism in the German capital.
But others are concerned that opening up the system could lead to more cybersquatting, where profiteers register brand names to make money off their popularity, or even make it easier for criminals to pose as banks or other legitimate organisations.
"If the domain name system is completely relaxed, cybersquatting will turn into a far greater problem, with companies struggling to protect their websites and intellectual property," said Thomas Herbert of Hostway, one of the world's largest web hosting companies.
"For example, Amazon would have to register many more domain names including Amazon.amazon, amazon.shopping, amazon.electronics. The list is practically endless, and the net result would be a more chaotic and disorganised web."
All applications will need to be approved by Icann itself, but buying the right to use one of these new names will not be cheap.
Some are expected to cost in the region of £250,000, leading some to question whether companies will have enough funds to protect themselves from impostors.
"It can be argued that the expansion of available suffixes is the equivalent of opening a can of worms in terms of online infringement," said Jonathan Robinson of domain management specialist NetNames. "With varying fee estimates, it could well turn out to be an untenable marketing expense for some."
There are other potential consequences which critics say are cause for concern. Not only could the new system deal a blow to the reputation of recent new domains such as .mobi and .eu, which will now have to compete with hundreds of others, but it could even damage the economies of some small countries which have become reliant on their internet-based business. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, for example, has made substantial profits from reselling its .tv domain name, which could be brought to an end if purchasers switch to a cheaper alternative.
The announcement could even resurrect plans to install a new .xxx domain for adult websites, a scheme which was scotched several years ago after protests by religious groups who feared that it would legitimise pornography.