July 1, 2008

Dot-What? New Online Extensions Get Creative


In addition to the likes of .com and .net, the Internet might soon have Web addresses ending in .fun, .cars and .prettymuchanythingyouwant.

Heralding the most dramatic expansion of virtual real estate in 40 years, the international group controlling Internet addresses decided Thursday to let anyone apply to be in charge of new last names for the Web.

The Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers - which is as close as the Internet gets to a governing body - opted to open up the process to companies, individuals and coalitions. That means that any word or name approved by ICANN could follow the dot in a Web address.

Big corporations and Web address sellers - as well as scammers looking for new places to lure unsuspecting Web surfers - are expected to make bids for some of the new classes of Web address.

While the application procedure is still being hammered out, it won't be cheap or hassle-free. Officials at ICANN, the Marina Del Rey, Calif., nonprofit contracted by the Commerce Department to run the domain-name system for Web site addresses, said they expected the initial fee to be less than $100,000 - but it might not fall much short of that.

"We will start accepting applications in April and May next year," ICANN Chief Executive Paul Twomey said from Paris, where the board adopted the plan at a milestone meeting. "We don't know how many we'll get. I expect it will be hundreds or thousands, but it may be tens of thousands."

Twomey said there was little reason not to open up the process and offer more choice in the Web address endings, known formally as top-level domains.

But critics said consumers were likely to be more confused and in some cases duped by hustlers using unfamiliar addresses. Lauren Weinstein, a tech policy consultant, said ICANN had become a captive of one of its largest interest groups, the companies that buy and sell domain names.

"The process has been hijacked to a significant extent by folks who see the domain-name system as their personal piggy bank," Weinstein said.

Those who succeed in establishing their own Web fiefdoms will have to handle the technological issues - making sure people trying to find, for example, a .pickle Web site actually get there - as well as the business issues.

Big companies may want to boost their brand presence by buying an extension like .ibm and then keeping hold of all the sites under the new umbrella, such as computers.ibm and software.ibm.

Other applicants probably will be motivated by the prospect of peddling thousands of Web addresses with endings of their own devising. Companies already in the domain-name business, such as Network Solutions Inc. and Demand Media Inc.'s eNom, should see a big boost in volume.

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