The Internet is already the world's central forum for publicizing just about anything, from pet food to the personal brands of aspiring rock stars. Now, the web's role as a marketing platform is poised to expand even further, as the regulatory body known as ICANN on Monday opened the door to a broadening range of website names.
Think of it as a cyberspace land rush, as companies and others try to stake claims to websites ending with names like ".bank."
Come next year, an era when site names ended in a handful of predictable ways like ".com" or ".gov" draws to a close. ICANN, which stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, says it will accept applications for domains with new suffixes that could range from corporate names (like ".Apple" or ".Canon") to more generic terms (like ".bank" or ".Vegas").
The result could be an explosion of new web handles, starting next year. The application process opens up Jan. 12, followed by a period during which ICANN will sort out approvals and potentially auction some names sought by more than one party.
"ICANN has opened the Internet's naming system to unleash the global human imagination," ICANN president Rod Beckstrom said in a statement after the vote by the group's board. "We hope this allows the domain name system to better serve all of mankind."
Although it has taken on a regulatory role for website naming, ICANN is a not-for-profit, nongovernmental group. By its own description, its role as a coordinator of naming policies gives it "an important impact on the expansion and evolution of the Internet."
Don't expect that all those ".com" sites will simply fade away, or that every celebrity will start a site with a name like "Lady.Gaga." Some pop stars may try to do that, but ICANN has made the process of launching a new suffix cumbersome and costly, to put some limits on the proliferation of web suffixes.
What's certain, though, is that companies and other entities will now be thinking hard about the new "your-name-here" opportunity. And on the flip side, they'll be pondering the potential risks of not joining the stampede.
It will cost $185,000 to apply, and individuals or organizations will be asked to show a legitimate claim to the name they are buying.
Already, news reports are chronicling a range of hoped-for suffixes. A group of entrepreneurs in Las Vegas is vying to operate a ".Vegas" suffix, to help promote the city.
Former professional hockey player Ron Andruff is working with international sports federations to bid for ".sport." Sierra Club and Greenpeace are separately seeking the right to operate a ".eco" suffix, while financial trade groups are looking into ".bank," ".insure," and ".invest" for member companies.
Currently, ICANN has backed the existence of 22 major site-name suffixes (like ".com" and ".org"), plus about 250 with a geographic basis such as ".fr" for sites based in France.
In the Internet's early growth frenzy that began in the 1990s, the most-desired site names with a ".com" suffix have generally been taken. The result is pent-up demand for new naming options. In its statement Monday, ICANN said it made the decision after years of discussion.
"Strong efforts were made to address the concerns of all interested parties, and to ensure that the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet are not compromised," the statement said.
The new system will allow suffixes in more languages, including Chinese and Arabic.
Companies may end up striking deals among themselves to avoid having to bid for control of a new suffix. But legal experts warn that the quest for new naming rights is also likely to result in disputes, in part as established corporations try to defend against copycat upstarts or the threat of pirated content.
Trademark holders worry they would have to register a lot of addresses they don't need or want simply to keep others from using them. ICANN has crafted rules meant to give trademark owners a first shot at claiming their brands. It would also have a process to quickly disable addresses that are clear violations.
But Steven Metalitz, a lawyer for a coalition of movie studios, recording labels, and other copyright holders, frets that ICANN won't be aggressive enough in enforcing the rules.
ICANN, formed in 1998, lists promoting competition and keeping the Internet secure as among is core goals.
• Material from wire services was used in this story.