The dot-com era is over. Welcome to the dot-anything age.
On Monday, the organization that regulates the world’s Internet domain names—yes, there is central coordination—approved changes that could allow anyone to register any name they like in almost any language as a Web address.
The new rules affect what the industry calls top-level domain names, the familiar dot-coms and dot-nets that end every Web address. Now, instead of having to use one of those existing forms, users will be able to end their addresses with the name of their company, such as dot-Ford, or their city, like dot-Berlin.
Now, your domain name could possibly be just about .anything. WSJ’s Jen Valentino-DeVries explains why on digits.
If successful, the change could alleviate a shortage of dot-com Web addresses and produce hundreds of millions of dollars in business for the companies whose business is managing the Internet’s vast registries, as well as those selling the names, called registrars. Companies could gain new tools for highlighting their identities and networking with suppliers and distributors.
The shift, however, could also cause anxiety and disputes among governments, companies and other entities in safeguarding their brands and identities in cyberspace. Those seeking religious or political names, for example, could lead to sensitive situations.
For companies, even those that are happy with dot-com and aren’t interested in adopting a new domain-name suffix will have to monitor the process to head off any potential trademark or brand-name infringement from other applicants, Internet experts said.
“Instead of having a dot-com that doesn’t really mean anything, you will have an extension that means something,” said Antony Van Couvering, the head of Minds + Machines LLC, a Santa Monica, Calif., company that advises clients on domain names.
The idea behind the change—which likely will need another 18 months before any of the new names become active—was to create more choice on the Internet and potentially spur innovation, according to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, the nonprofit Internet coordinating body that approved the measure.
For companies, having a Web-address suffix reflecting their own name could benefit branding as well as online security.
Online sales of counterfeit goods are on the rise, with fake domain names duping customers into thinking they are getting a good price on the real deal. Fraud is a problem, too.
To combat that activity, companies could register their brands as domain names—dot-brand—then offer authorized distributors of their products access to that domain, said Elisa Cooper, director of product marketing at MarkMonitor, a firm that helps businesses protect their brands online.
Those distributors would appear on the Web as distributor1.brand and distributor2.brand. Eventually, consumers could learn that only sites using the dot-brand domain carry authentic products.
Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages-America, says the change creates interesting opportunities for building his brand. But he worries about the cost and wonders whether the new addresses will be adopted by consumers, noting that alternatives like dot-biz failed to find an audience. If it does catch on, companies like Pepsi may feel pressure to follow suit.
“I see this as nice to have, but it’s not something we’re going to get cracking on tomorrow morning,” Mr. Singh said. “I am keen to see how other brands adopt it, because this will only succeed if it has critical mass adoption among companies.”
Many companies opposed the change, however, citing the hassles it would create. Major companies typically register their name in multiple countries under country-code domain names such as dot-uk for Great Britain, as well as under multiple top-level domain names such as dot-com and dot-net.
The new rules create infinite options, compounding the registration issues. “Trademark owners and their lawyers are watching this closely to ensure their rights,” said Jeff Brown, a spokesman for videogame publisher Electronic Arts Inc. “For us, the domains seem expensive and offer negligible value.”
Peter Dengate Thrush, standing, chairman of Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, at an Icann meeting in Singapore on Monday with Rod Beckstrom, the organization’s president and chief executive.
Search-engine giant Google Inc. warned that the change has the potential to create widespread user confusion.
“For example, if someone wants to find Citibank, would that be at citibank.com, http://www.citibank, citi.bank, or somewhere else?” a Google spokeswoman asked hypothetically.
Icann will accept applications for addresses under the new rules from Jan. 12 to April 12. The first of the new domains could be online by late 2012.
There are currently about 20 generic top-level domain names, like dot-org, and more than 200 country-code domain names, like dot-de for Germany. As of April, there were more than 211 million Web addresses in use around the world, with nearly half of those using the dot-com suffix, according to Matthew Zook, the head of ZookNIC Internet Intelligence, an Internet research firm.
Companies now will need to determine if they want to register their name under the plethora of potential new addresses. Ford Motor Co., for example, might eventually need to consider whether to register its name under a new dot-Texas suffix—ford.texas—to associate with customers there, or get a suffix using its own name, dot-ford.
“We need time to investigate but it sounds interesting,” Said Deep, a spokesman for Ford, said Monday. “In the end, we will do what makes the most sense for our customers.”
Since so many names are already taken on the popular dot-com suffix, the change could produce attractive alternatives like dot-web for entities that missed out.
Not everyone will jump in, primarily because entry isn’t cheap.
A company or government or individual that wants a domain-name suffix must pay Icann $185,000 just to apply. The application itself is several hundred pages long.
The fee could keep smaller businesses from registering a unique extension, even as the change opens up opportunities to build Web addresses on industry keywords like dot-pets, said Warren Adelman, president of domain-name registration firm GoDaddy.com.
Jason Levin, an online florist in Vista, Calif., who paid $2,500 on the secondary market for SunFlowerGuy.com, said he’s unlikely to change his domain name under the new rules. “If we saw an opportunity that made sense, we’d consider it,” Mr. Levin said. “But I’m not in the business of buying and selling domain-name extensions. I sell flowers.”
For those who secure domain names, there is a yearly fee to Icann of around $25,000. That comes on top of the costs of running the domain-name suffix, likely outsourced to a company already in the business, which can run anywhere from $15,000 to millions of dollars, depending on the number of users, according to Ms. Cooper of MarkMonitor.
In Charge: Will Small Businesses Buy New Domains?
Icann said the hefty fee is based on the estimated cost of processing the applications, including possible litigation involving name disputes and other contingencies.
Applicants that look like cyber-squatters taking advantage of brand names or trademarks that clearly don’t belong to them will be rejected, Icann said. An applicant seeking to register, for example, dot-cocacola, would have to be the well-known beverage company.
Winners otherwise will be determined by a panel that will consider factors like financial and technical capability, as well as how the applicant plans to use the domain. Some contests for a single name could be resolved by an auction, potentially generating sizeable revenue for Icann.
Once an appealing domain-name suffix is secured, selling the secondary names—meaning the words to the left of the dot—could be a profitable business. Dot-doctor could be an attractive offering to the medical profession, said Adrian Kinderis, chief executive of Melbourne-based AusRegistry International, which sells names under country code domain names like dot-au for Australia and dot-om for Oman.
Dot-doctor, for example, could be made available to only licensed doctors, who would get Web addresses appearing as yourname.doctor.
“I could sell those for $1,000 a throw because you’re adding value into the verification mechanism that exists,” Mr. Kinderis said.