It could be the end of the World Wide Web as we know it: After rolling out just 22 top-level domains in the past 10 years, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit formed in 1998 to coordinate the Internet's naming system, is flinging the doors open on Thursday, allowing companies, organizations and cities to register for any generic top-level domain (gTLD) they want.
While most of the websites people visit now typically have extensions like .com, .org or .edu, companies and organizations will essentially be able to make up their own starting this week. For example, if Pepsi buys .pepsi, it can launch its own drink.pepsi website.
By the time the process is finished in 2013, Web addresses could start to look less like the streamlined World Wide Web we know today and more like the Wild Wild West. "We're talking about a large number of words," ICANN spokesman Brad White said. It means a large number of characters as well, in Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Cyrillic -- which White says "can dramatically increase the Internet penetration rates" globally.
Why so expansive of a move? "The whole reason we're doing this is to increase competition and innovation on the Internet," White explained. "We were devised by the U.S. government to increase innovation and competition in the domain space. What we're trying to do is give innovators a blank palette here. We don't know how innovators will use this new gTLD space to come up with new ways to use the Internet. The most exciting thing is not what we can visualize, but what we can't."
Some entrepreneurs are visualizing this as a big moneymaker, and planning to place their stakes as domain-name speculators, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. Some of the in-demand properties include .eco, .bank and .wine.
The opportunities may be endless, but the costs and requirements are exclusionary. It costs $185,000 just to apply for a gTLD, which is "a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of running an Internet registry," White said. "Applicants have to show they have they appropriate capital and technical understanding. The guidebook of how to apply for this thing is 300 pages long. It's not one-size-fits-all, and we don't want people to be caught unaware of what it takes."
That means while corporations like Pepsi shouldn't have a problem registering for.pepsi, smaller businesses may be shut out. ICANN does offer an Applicant Support program that provides financial and nonfinancial assistance to what it calls "deserving applicants," based on three criteria sets: public interest benefit, financial need and financial capabilities.
Although skeptics wonder about possible issues with security or fraud, White said the new space is safer than the existing one. "Rights holders can register to protect their trademark even if they're not applying for a domain," he says. "We do background criminal checks of prospective registry operators, have a trademark clearinghouse and a different dispute resolution program. Current threats were analyzed and the defenses against them were improved upon."
The deadline for applications is Apr. 12.