The pillar of the basic Web address — the trusty .com domain — is about to face vast new competition that could dramatically transform the Web as we know it. New websites, with more subject-specific, sometimes controversial suffixes, will soon populate the online galaxy, such as .eco, .love, .god, .sport, .gay or .kurd.
This massive expansion to the Internet's domain name system is expected to make the Web more intuitive or create more cluttered, maddening experiences. No one knows yet. But with an infinite number of naming possibilities, an industry of Web wildcatters is racing to grab these potentially lucrative territories with addresses that are bound to provoke.
Who gets to run .abortion websites — people who support abortion rights or those who don't? Who can run the .islam or .mohammed sites? Can the Ku Klux Klan own .nazi on free speech grounds, or will a Jewish group run the domain and permit only educational websites — say, www.remember.nazi or www.antidefamation.nazi?
Two companies vying for the environmentally friendly .eco domain have competing endorsements: one from a nonprofit chaired by former Vice President Al Gore, the other from a group founded by former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The decisions on who gets the addresses will come down to a little-known nonprofit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose international board of directors approved the expansion in 2008 but has been stuck debating how best to run the program before launching it. Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is on the cusp of completing those talks in March or April and will soon solicit applications from companies and governments that want to propose and operate the new addresses.
Next week, hundreds of investors, consultants and entrepreneurs are expected to converge in San Francisco for the first ".nxt" conference, a three-day affair featuring seminars on ICANN's complicated application guidelines.
These online territories are costly. The price tag to apply is $185,000, a cost that ensures only well-financed organizations operate the domains and cuts out many smaller grass roots organizations, developing countries or dreamers, according to critics. That's on top of ICANN's $25,000 annual fee for domains.
Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, a grass roots firm in Los Angeles, said the new domains are designed purely to make money for ICANN and the companies that control the domains. The new Web addresses, Weinstein said, will only mean more aggravation for trademark holders and confusion for the average Internet user.
Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of the ICANN board, said the high application fee is based on the nonprofit's bet that it's going to get sued and to protect against cybersquatters or other organizations ill-equipped to manage an entire domain of hundreds, if not thousands of websites. "Our job is to protect competition and give extra choices for consumers and entrepreneurs," he said.
Many organizations are competing for the same domain names, in disputes that often will be settled by an auction or by an ICANN board decision.
The Internet has 21 generic domains such as .com, .net., .edu or .org and hundreds of others for countries, such as .de for Germany. The most prevalent generic domains are .com and .net, which account for about half of the world's 202 million Internet addresses.
Since 2000, ICANN has expanded the number of "generic top-level domains" only twice, and only in tiny doses to such sites ending in .biz, .jobs, .museum, or .mobi (for mobile sites). Those domains have so far yet to attract huge audiences.
But many entrepreneurs expect that the new expansion of Web addresses — the first of which won't go live until early 2012 — will catch on with users and make money. Many budding domain operators expect to earn millions of dollars, according to Kieren McCarthy, a former ICANN general manager who is organizing next week's domain name conference in San Francisco.