Thursday marks the opening bell for anyone who wants a website ending with something other than .com, .edu, or one of the other 20 familiar Internet suffixes.
The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit in charge of online registry, plans to throw open the doors to hundreds, potentially thousands of new suffixes, called top-level domain names.
In this first expansion round, which runs through April 12, ICANN will process some 500 applications to register new names. It projects that the first of the new domain names could be up and running by the end of 2012.
From a legal standpoint, there will be challenges to launching the new system, says trademark attorney Erik Pelton. “Who is entitled to .delta? Delta airlines or Delta faucet?” he says.
But perhaps the bigger concern to businesses is that cybersquatters might register online addresses that intentionally mislead surfers.
“Already, large and small trademark owners struggle to prevent cybersquatting and other malicious uses of their trademarks in connection with third-party domain-name registrations,” says Trevor Schmidt, an intellectual property attorney with Moore & Van Allen, via e-mail
This could represent an exponential increase costs associated with protecting a famous brand, he notes. Although ICANN has adopted a number of protections for trademark owners, “none of these protections are without cost,” he says.
A lawsuit challenging ICANN’s handling of the .XXX domain, for instance, highlights the problems many foresee with this expansion. Eight in 10 applicants who have preregistered for .XXX names are not associated with the adult-entertainment industry, notes Jean Nogues, a lawyer with the case, citing data from EasySpace, which tracks this data.
The companies, he says, “are forced to do this to protect themselves.”
Applicants for the top domain names must pony up $185,000, as well as pay monthly and annual fees. They must also show they can handle the administration involved with servicing their own domain name. This may prevent the entry of frivolous or malicious domain owners.
But expanding the universe of domain names could also cause Internet confusion even without malicious intent, some say.
“The expansion will further clutter the Internet with unused or underused web pages and make it more difficult to identify legitimate webpages,” says Mr. Schmidt of Moore & Van Allen.
But others say the change might not have much impact since most websites will still want to gravitate toward .com.
"Many people will actually try typing in the name of a product or brand with .com before even searching for it on a search engine," says Alex Halavais, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., author of “Search Engine Society” and president of the Association of Internet Researchers.
Adding domain names, he says, "is unlikely to change that.”
Moreover, domain names matter less in the Facebook era, says Elisa Cooper of Mark Monitor, which specializes in online brand protection.
“What we are seeing now is that increasingly businesses are relying less and less on their websites,” she says. “Instead they are putting their Facebook pages on the cereal boxes and soda cans.”
It’s not clear whether the next generation is paying all that much attention to domain names, she adds. “They are much more reliant on search results and Facebook and other social media activity.”
[Editor's note: The original version of this article misspelled Jean Nogues' name.]