Internet group opens door to domains beyond .com

Get ready for ".nyc" and ".ebay."

Starting in early 2009, almost any word will be able to replace ".com" in a Web page address. That opens the door for addresses such as www.restaurants.sanfrancisco or www.books.amazon.

The decision was made Thursday by the organization that manages the technical underpinnings of the Web, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN, a non-profit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., wants "to increase competition and choice," CEO Paul Twomey says.

The news is likely to spark a scramble for desirable addresses, called top-level domains. It could force businesses to register thousands of domains to protect their brands. And it could make some Web pages easier — and some harder — to find.

"It is an amazing development," says Tom Lowenhaupt, who heads Connecting.nyc, a New York City community group pushing for a ".nyc" domain.

Details are still in the works. But ICANN says that registrants applying for a top-level domain must prove that they have the ability to manage the sizable technical task of running it, or have hired someone who does.

They'll also have to pay up. Fees haven't been set but could start around $100,000. Popular domains could be auctioned, Twomey says.

Not all words qualify. An application can be thrown out if it conflicts with a trademark (".pepsi"), is too similar to an existing domain (".kom"), is a geopolitical term claimed by a government or other group (".china"), or is a threat to morality or public order.

ICANN previously came under criticism when it considered adding a ".xxx" domain. Twomey says his group doesn't regulate morality and will send all potentially problematic applications to a yet-to-be-determined independent review board.

The Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group that argued against ".xxx," says that may not be enough. "The main issue is whether … these new domain addresses will make it harder for filters (that block pornography or other undesirable sites) to work," says Chris Gacek, a senior fellow.

Confusion may be another downside. Although some companies, including eBay, argued for additional domains, others may be unhappy to learn that they "have to buy all the variants on their name in order to protect their trademarks," says Gordon Cook, author of trade newsletter The Cook Report on Internet.

And Web surfers may not know where to go to find information. "We don't need anymore top-level domains," Cook says.

Big winners are companies that sell domain names, such as Network Solutions and GoDaddy.com, Cook says. They could reap huge profits from new applications. Cook argues that ICANN is too closely aligned with their interests, but Twomey says his group is just fulfilling a pledge to give website owners more options.

Avi Silberschatz, chair of the computer science department at Yale University, says few people type in domain names anymore. Instead, they use search engines, he says. " 'Yale.edu' … 'whitehouse.gov' … who remembers it?" he says. "You just go to Google."

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