The pillar of the basic Web address - the trusty .com domain - is about to face vast new competition that will dramatically transform the Web as we know it. New Web sites, with more subject-specific, sometimes controversial suffixes, will soon populate the online galaxy, such as .eco, .love, .god, .sport, .gay or .kurd.
This massive expansion to the Internet's domain name system will either make the Web more intuitive or create more cluttered, maddening experiences. No one knows yet. But with an infinite number of naming possibilities, an industry of Web wildcatters is racing to grab these potentially lucrative territories with addresses that are bound to provoke.
Who gets to run .abortion Web sites - people who support abortion rights or those who don't? Which individual or mosque can run the .islam or .muhammad sites? Can the Ku Klux Klan own .nazi on free speech grounds, or will a Jewish organization run the domain and permit only educational Web sites - say, remember.nazi or antidefamation.nazi? And who's going to get .amazon - the Internet retailer or Brazil?
The decisions will come down to a little-known nonprofit based in Marina del Rey, Calif., whose international board of directors approved the expansion in 2008 but has been stuck debating how best to run the program before launching it. Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is on the cusp of completing those talks in March or April and will soon solicit applications from companies and governments that want to propose and operate the new addresses.
This week, hundreds of investors, consultants and entrepreneurs are expected to converge in San Francisco for the first ".nxt" conference, a three-day affair featuring seminars on ICANN's complicated application guidelines. The conference's Web site, which has a list of applicants, is not without a sense of humor: "Join the Internet land rush!" a headline screams, above a photograph of the Tom Cruise character galloping on a horse in the movie "Far and Away," the 1992 film about giveaways out West in the late 19th century.
These online territories are hardly free. The price tag to apply is $185,000, a cost that ensures only well-financed organizations operate the domains and cuts out many smaller grass-roots organizations, developing countries or dreamers, according to critics. (Rejectees get some of the application fee returned.) That's on top of the $25,000 annual fee domain operators have to pay ICANN.
Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, a grass-roots firm in Los Angeles, alleges that the new domains are designed purely to make money for ICANN and the companies that control the domains. The new Web addresses, he added, will only mean more aggravation for trademark holders and confusion for the average Internet user.
Peter Dengate Thrush, chair of the ICANN board of directors, argued that the high application fee is based on the nonprofit's bet that it's going to get sued, and to protect against cybersquatters or other organizations ill equipped to manage an entire domain of hundreds, if not thousands of Web sites. "Our job is to protect competition and give extra choices for consumers and entrepreneurs," Thrush said.
Many organizations are competing for the same domain names, in disputes that often will be settled by an ICANN-sponsored auction or by an ICANN board decision. Two companies vying for the environmentally-friendly .eco domain have competing endorsements: one from a nonprofit chaired by former vice president Al Gore; the other from a group founded by former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Internet has 21 generic domains such as .com, .net., .edu or .org and hundreds of others for countries, such as .de for Germany. The most prevalent generic domains are .com and .net, which account for about half of the world's 202 million Internet addresses.
Since 2000, ICANN has expanded the number of "generic top-level domains" only twice, and only in tiny doses to such sites ending in .biz, .jobs, .museum, or .mobi (for mobile sites). Those domains have so far yet to attract huge audiences.
But many entrepreneurs expect that the new expansion of Web addresses - the first of which won't go live until early 2012 - will catch on with users and make money. Many budding domain operators expect to earn millions of dollars, according to Kieren McCarthy, a former ICANN general manager who is organizing next week's domain name conference in San Francisco.
The future operator of .sport, for instance, could sell as many as 200,000 or more Web addresses - hockey.sport, bethesda.sport or washingtoncapitals.sport - for wholesale prices ranging from $6 to $50 to such companies as Go Daddy. These firms then re-sell the Web sites to consumers for higher prices. McCarthy also said ICANN is debating whether the domain operators could sell Web addresses directly to the consumer themselves.
Ron Andruff, president and chief executive of dotSport LLC, a New York-based outfit, said he believes more users will find niche interests and communities more easily with the new addresses. "Google and Bing are not in business of helping you find what you are looking for," he said. "They're in the business of generating revenue from those willing to bid the highest to get on their search results page."
Scott Seitz, the CEO of DotGay LLC, wants to build a universe of sites - he expects 300,000 initially - with addresses such as lawyers.gay, aids.gay, hotels.gay or communitycenter.gay. He has the backing of several prominent gays rights groups including Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
Seitz, who is gay, said the simple idea of operating the domain devoted to the gay movement exerts its own pressures. "I have a responsibility, and I am in awe of that," said Seitz, adding that he and his business partners intend on donating two-thirds of their revenue to various social causes. "I buried 40 friends in 18 months [who died from complications related to HIV]. Having .gay is scary, it could be crazy. I've already told people to get steel doors and window bars for security to protect against anti-gay organizations that wouldn't want dot-gay to happen."
For people who might propose controversial domains - such as .nazi, which ICANN officials have worried about - approval will be based on the applicant's identity and intentions, and on the grounds of "morality and public order." Such companies as Canon or IBM will be given priority for .canon or .ibm, and so will municipalities for such domains as .paris or .nyc.
Some people are chasing after multiple domains. Antony Van Couvering, the chief executive of Minds + Machines, a California-based registry company, is working with various partners to pursue not only .eco (with the backing of Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection), but a slew of others, including .gay, .nyc, and, in the interest of capturing even the most far-flung audiences, .zulu - for South Africa's largest ethnic population. It's the .eco domain that will be competitive, though. Jacob Malthouse, a former ICANN official, formed a Vancouver-based company that is also going after .eco; his venture has the support of Gorbachev's Green Cross International.
Other entrepreneurs may bump up against corporate titans and trademark issues. Constantine Roussos, of Los Angeles, has spent years working on his application for .music. Roussos, a 34-year-old musician whose family owns real estate in Cyprus, envisions .music as the industry's trusted inventory of Web sites operated by musicians, managers, studios, promoters, composers and so on. For example, only artists with verifiable professional identities could create sites such as queen.music or pink.music.
Roussos believes the .music domain will help Internet users easily connect to their favorite band's real Web site by typing the name of the band followed by .music on their Web browser; and will help musicians sell their music directly to consumers. Many famous bands - Queen, Kiss, the Eagles - don't own their own .com Web sites because their names use common words, he lamented.
The music industry, however, has its concerns about .music. In early January, the Recording Industry Association of America wrote a letter to ICANN's board of directors, expressing fear that a .music domain might make musicians more vulnerable to piracy and trademark infringement.
But Roussos believes his model for .music might help the music industry. "When you're searching for Queen and type it into Google, will your results be the Queen of England or the Queen of Denmark?" he asked. "But if you go to queen.music, you know it's the band. It's faster. And it'll drive traffic and more money to the artist."