The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers announced on Monday one of the most significant changes to Internet naming since "dot com" was first uttered.
ICANN will dramatically increase the number of domain name endings -- known in the industry as "generic top-level domains," they currently include .com, .net and .gov -- opening up the relatively limited set currently available to website owners.
According to the organization, addresses will be able to end in almost any word in any language. Companies, places and individuals will be given the opportunity to register their names, and category domains -- such as .cars, .sports and .news -- will be up for registration come January 2012.
Given the mere 22 possible endings available now, the decision has potentially far-ranging implications as to how corporations, non-profits and individuals choose to exist online.
As part of a 305 page Applicant Guidebook, ICANN stipulates that companies registering certain brand names will be subject to thorough vetting to determine that they can legally hold a brand name domain.
"The issue is about having control over your internet presence as much as possible," said Jeff Ernst, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. Ernst explained that as it stands right now, many companies "have put their brand presence secondary to .com" -- the most popular domain ending. With the new domains, "companies can better control their brand."
Consumers, meanwhile, will be able to differentiate between official brand sites and imposters. "When you go to .Gucci, consumers will know it's not the knockoff," said Ernst.
The thorniest question surrounds category names and who controls the rights to them. Ernst says that "preference will be given to those groups that want to run an open community" and foresees industry associations and larger groups making collective bids, but with "strict guidelines as to who can participate."
Jeremiah Johnston, the chief operating officer for domain name marketplace Sedo, cautioned that "these are words," -- not trademarked names -- and warned that concerns will inevitably arise as to "who is the true custodian of them."
"This is a question of fair use rules -- it's going to be interesting," he added.
Anthony Falzone, a lecturer in Law affiliated with the Stanford Center on Internet and Society, said he thought the category domains "will strike off a huge bidding war."
But he also questioned how effective -- or necessary -- they would be in the long run.
"In the early days of the internet, there was that first gold rush for domain names, because domain was quite important to finding things. Search capability was essential," Falzone explained. But these days, he posited, users are just as likely to use search engines like Google to find an individual or company, making domain names less important.
Others in the industry said the traditional domain name endings show little sign of going away. Kurt Gastrock, senior vice president of product at Network Solutions, a domain name registry and web hosting service, said that "the landscape has been dominated by .com extension since the existence of the commercial internet. And it still makes up half of the registrations."
Gastrock says that certain "behavioral conditioning" needed to take place to push users (and companies) to embrace the new domain name endings.
But he also noted the success of certain country domain names that have been licensed for broader, unrelated uses. The domain .co was originally meant for Colombia, but has since been appropriated as an alternative to .com, while .tv was initially meant to represent the country of Tuvalu but has since become popular given its implication of broadcast media. "These GTLDs have multiple meanings and interpretations and are marketed in different ways," explained Gastrock.
Johnston said that the .co representatives, "went to trademark and branding conventions, and made sure everybody knew it was an alternative to .com." He added that the .co team recognized that it was essential for "consumers to have a relationship to the extension and to assume what kind of content it represents. Marketing is key."
In the end, the net effect of ICANN's domain name expansion is anyone's guess. "We're still in the infancy of the internet," said Gastrock. "These things can change in ways we can imagine and ways we cannot."
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of the Network Solutions senior vice president of product. He is Kurt Gastrock, not Gastroch. The initial report also incorrectly described Sedu as a domain name registration company. It is a domain name marketplace that processes secondary registrations.