The Internet's key oversight body approved a timetable Friday for expanding the online addressing system that could include domain names made up entirely of non-English characters.
Though Internet users may now register names in Chinese, Arabic and dozens of other scripts, domain names still must end with .com or another English string. Domain names are key to finding Web sites and routing e-mail.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, meeting in Arabic-speaking Tunisia, called for studies by next September on technical, economic, trademark and other considerations related to new names.
The studies would include whether suffixes in other languages would create any technical problems. If they do not, applications for those, along with additional English suffixes, could come by Dec. 31, 2004, and new domain names could be in use as early as 2005.
"The call is very clear when you're in places like the Arab-speaking world," ICANN chief executive Paul Twomey told reporters by telephone.
ICANN, a California-based organization selected by the U.S. government to oversee Internet addressing policies, approved a quicker timetable for domain names restricted to specific groups, such as health organizations. It will begin accepting applications by mid December and select an undetermined number early next year.
The organization approved seven domain names in 2000, including three targeting specific communities: museums, the aviation industry and business cooperatives.
There are 258 domain names on the Internet, the bulk of them designated for specific countries such as ".fr" for France. The seven approved in 2000 represented the first major expansion since the system was created in the 1980s.