The Internet's key oversight agency relaxed rules Thursday to permit theintroduction of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new Internet domain names to join ".com," making the first sweeping changes in the network's 25-year-old address system.The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers unanimously approved the new guidelines as weeklong meetings in Paris concluded. ICANN also voted unanimously to open public comment on a separate proposal to permit addresses entirely in non-English languages for the first time.
New names won't start appearing until at least next year, and ICANN won't be deciding on specific ones quite yet. The organization still must work out many details, including fees for obtaining new names, expected to exceed $100,000 apiece to help ICANN cover up to $20 million in costs.
New names could cover locations such as ".nyc" and ".berlin" or industries such as ".bank." The hefty application fees could curb a rush for individual vanity names, though larger companies might claim brands like ".disney."
The new guidelines would make it easier for companies and groups to propose new suffixes.
Some ICANN board members expressed concerns that the guidelines could turn the organization into a censorship regime, deciding what could be objectionable to someone, somewhere in the world.
"If this is broadly implemented, this recommendation would allow for any government to effectively veto a string that makes it uncomfortable," said Susan Crawford, a Yale law professor on the board.
None of the new names is likely to dethrone ".com" as the world's leader, and critics fear new suffixes will merely force companies and organizations to spend more money registering names such as "microsoft.paris" simply so others can't. Legal battles are possible over common but trademarked names like ".apple."
The other proposal before ICANN would permit addresses entirely in non-English characters for the first time. Specific countries would be put on a "fast track" to receive the equivalent of their two-letter country code, such as Bulgaria's ".bg," in a native language.
The ICANN board said it would seek public comment on the guidelines before its next major meeting in November.
Demand for such names has been increasing around the world as Internet usage expands to people who cannot speak English or easily type English characters. Addresses partly in foreign languages are sometimes possible today, but the suffix has been limited to 37 characters: a-z, 0-9 and the hyphen.
A loophole in registration policies now allows entrepreneurs to grab domain names risk-free for up to five days to see whether they generate enough traffic and advertising dollars. That practice ties up millions of Internet addresses, making it even more difficult for individuals and businesses to find good names in the crowded ".com" space.