Bidding will begin this week for words and brand names such as ".sport," ''.NYC" and ".bank" to join ".com" as online monikers.
Up to 1,000 domain name suffixes — the ".com" in an internet address — could be added each year in the most sweeping change to the domain name system since its creation in the 1980s. To some, the system will lead to ".cash." To others, it will mean ".confusion."
The idea is to let Las Vegas hotels, casinos and other attractions, for example, congregate around ".Vegas;" or a company such as Canon Inc. draw customers to "cameras.Canon" or "printers.Canon." The new system will also make Chinese, Japanese and Swahili versions of ".com" possible.
Some companies and entrepreneurs have already expressed interest in applying for a suffix and possibly earning millions of dollars a year from people and groups wanting a website that ends in that name.
Others worry that an expansion will mean more addresses available to scams that use similar-sounding names, such as "Amazom" rather than "Amazon," to trick people into giving passwords and credit card information. Others worry that new suffixes could create additional platforms for hate groups or lead to addresses ending in obscenities.
The oversight agency for internet addresses, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, spent years crafting guidelines meant to curtail nefarious activities. Still, critics say ICANN is rushing to expand the naming system without putting enough safeguards in place.
"You don't want a ship to have holes … and ask everybody to come on board," said Dan Jaffe, the chief lobbyist at the Association of National Advertisers, which represents 400 companies and 10,000 brand names. "You should close the holes, then run a pilot project to see if the systems you put in place are actually effective."
Concerns have also been raised in several U.S government departments.
There's also a question of how useful the new names will be, at least among English speakers. Alternatives to ".com" introduced over the past decade have had mixed success. These days, internet users are more likely to type "new Muppet movie" into their browser's search box than to know the official site is at "Disney.go.com/muppets."
ICANN will start taking bids for new suffixes on Thursday at 12:01 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (Wednesday at 7:01 p.m. EST).
Bidding open until April
That doesn't mean people will be able to type in "Caribbean.vacation" or "iPad.Apple" right away. Initial bidding will stay open until April. After that, ICANN will accept challenges for trademark conflicts and other reasons. Auctions would be held should multiple bidders seek the same suffix. It could take months more for winning bidders to set up.
The new names won't appear in general use until at least spring of 2013. Applicants facing challenges may have to wait until 2014.
Names will be restricted to the richest companies and groups — it will cost $185,000 US to apply and at least $25,000 US a year to maintain one. A 10-year commitment is required. The fees do not include operational costs, such as computers and staff. By comparison, a personal address with a common suffix such as ".com" usually costs less than $10 a year.
Despite the startup costs, suffixes could be lucrative to the winning bidders. A company called ICM Registry receives an estimated $60 a year for every ".xxx" address registered, for instance. It's not just pornography sites interested. Colleges and universities have been buying names such as "KUgirls.xxx" to make sure others can't.