Get ready for dot-this, dot-that, and dot-anythingelseyoucanthinkof.
This week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) voted to open up the internet's generic top-level domain (gTLD) system, paving the way for domain suffixes beyond the familiar .com, .net, .org, and so on.
Starting January 2012, anyone with an idea, an appetite for paperwork, and the $185,000 application fee can apply for a new top-level domain.
Additionally, the gTLD restriction on non-Latin characters, such as Cyrillic, Arabic, and Chinese script, will be lifted.
Back in January on CBC Radio's Spark, gTLD-watcher Kieren McCarthy offered a few examples of companies that might apply for new domains. "I know Canon have said that they're looking at getting .canon. We could easily see .apple, or .facebook, or .google, because it provides all sorts of advantages, to be able to control that bit of the internet."
Though I'm personally intrigued by the possibility of .dan, I feel that initially these new domains will be confusing. For many Internet users, the almost infinite number of new suffixes will undoubtedly be more difficult to keep track of than the 22 existing generic top-level domains, plus a number of country-specific ones (like Canada's .ca).
But I suspect that the real headaches will come in January, when ICANN opens the gTLD application process, the land grab begins, and the first disputes arise. Deciding who gets to own what will be tricky.
For example, if I had an extra $185,000 lying around, I might have a pretty reasonable claim on .danmisener. But who gets .cbc? Will it be the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation? Or Capital Blue Cross? Or the Colorado Beef Council? Or maybe the Chicago Building Congress?
Things get even trickier with more general domains. Who gets .radio? Who gets .travel? Who gets .cars?
ICANN says it plans to auction off domains if more than one party has a legitimate claim, and I bet those auctions will get pricey for the most sought-after names.
So far, the reaction to ICANN's decision has been mixed. Some people — particularly those in the marketing and branding world — are pleased. They see real value in these new domains in terms of offering an opportunity for companies and brands to define themselves online. They also think the domains could help prevent online problems such as domain squatters and spoof sites.
More broadly, I think there's a recognition that the existing domain name system is built on a model of artificial scarcity. The idea of removing this scarcity in favour of digital abundance is very "of the net."
But, not surprisingly, others aren't so happy about ICANN's decision. One of the big concerns has to do with the high cost of entry: a $185,000 application fee, and an ongoing yearly cost of $25,000.
And that's where I start to wonder: is it worth the price?
Given current browsing habits, is it more important to own a piece of the internet by buying your own top-level domain, or is it more important to be easily findable by appearing at the top of search results?
Sure, in a domain economy built on scarcity we've seen high-profile domains sell for a lot of money. Sex.com, for example, was reportedly sold for upwards of $14 million.
But I'm not so sure that owning a really great domain name is as valuable as it once was. Personally, I very rarely type web addresses into my browser anymore. I bookmark the sites I like. I follow links from social networking sites. And when I'm looking for something specific, I usually find it through a search engine. For better or for worse, Google has become my gateway to much of the web.
So then, given current browsing habits, is it more important to own a piece of the internet by buying your own top-level domain, or is it more important to be easily findable by appearing at the top of search results? If I was looking to spend $185,000, that's a question I'd think long and hard about.
Beyond business, I have concerns about end-user confusion and the security implications that go along with that confusion. Over the past few decades, the relatively static domain name has conditioned many internet users. Many of us know that a .edu address usually corresponds to an educational institution. Many of us know that .gov denotes a U.S. government website.
My concern with these new top level domains is that scammers and phishers might exploit any confusion that accompanies this massive change to the domain name system. For example, I feel relatively safe visiting PayPal.com. But what happens if I receive an email asking me to visit PayPal.bank, or PayPal.money, or PayPal.6aHK?
ICANN's decision to open up the gTLD space represents a massive change for the Internet.
And, like any large-scale change, it'll come with its own set of growing pains.