A NEW era in the way websites are named has been ushered in, with web regulators voting overnight to allow the creation of thousands of new domain names.
The body that oversees the internet's structure approved a "land grab" for new web addresses that will allow people to apply for any top-level domain name - but it will cost them at least $US 100,000 to do so.
Scripts other than Latin - for example Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Cyrillic - will also be allowed, opening up the internet to many millions in the Middle East and Asia.
Until now top-level domain names - the .com or .org at the end of a web address - have been restricted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international not-for-profit body set up in 1998 to to oversee the structure of the internet and maintain its stability.
ICANN regulates the way web addresses are assigned to ensure that computers can communicate with each other.
The free-for-all agreed in Paris is seen as a great leap forward. ICANN is not being forced to act because there are not enough name options, but because it wants to open up the system to increase consumer choice.
The most popular top level domain name in the world is .com and there are about another 20 possibilities such as .org or .net. Every country has a country code domain name such as .com.au and co.uk (Britain). Now the possibilities are endless and the new names could range from place names to commodities.
Paul Twomey, the chief executive of ICANN, said: "It's a massive increase in the real estate of the internet. It will allow groups, communities and businesses to express their identities online."
Experts are divided on how many new domain names will come into existence. Skeptics argue that some of the more recent additions such as .name introduced in 2000 have failed to take off. But several categories of suffix, such as those relating to cities, are sure to prove popular.
It is easy to imagine addresses ending in .london or .paris. City authorities could apply for use of the domain name and then group services and companies under the .london umbrella.
Another top-level domain name likely to attract attention is .web.
It was not clear last night how many big name companies would want to change their well-established web addresses to take advantage of the new opportunities. Some were asking whether, for instance, Microsoft would want to stop residing at http://www.microsoft.com.
But there is the potential for large sums to be won - and lost - amid fears that "cyber-squatters" would cash in on the liberalization to register hundreds of new web addresses created within each new suffix, and seek to sell them on to companies or organizations that want to claim them.
Big companies already spend millions of pounds buying up web addresses similar to their own to protect their brands. At the other end of the scale, those with money to burn might register their own personal domains.
Would-be applicants are advised that the process is different from registering a regular website. Top-level domains require significant equipment - including servers, routers, and databases - to run.
ICANN said it would begin taking applications for new domains next April, with the first expected to be in operation by the end of 2009.
The system is open to anyone, but applicants have to show they have a "business plan and technical capacity".
Disputed domains will be auctioned to the highest bidder, though in some cases intellectual property law may help a company to secure a name.
ICANN also reserves the right to reject a domain on "morality or public order" grounds, in which case the matter may go to an international arbitration committee.
One area of dispute will be domain names useful to the sex industry. Icann has in the past rejected the .xxx domain name on the grounds that it would be forced to become a content regulator. Whether .sex or .hot may be now allowed remains unclear.
So, what does all this mean? The bottom line is .com domains are only going to become more valuable as more players enter the domain game and realize only one fact is certain: .com is the beach front Internet Real Estate!
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