ICANN votes for huge domain expansion as users shrug

Is it all too late to matter?

The age of .com has been put on notice. After years of wrangling, Internet governing body ICANN has finally approved a dramatic expansion of top-level domain suffixes from the current 22 commonly used to just about anything an applicant can think of.

After delays and some controversy about the benefits of such a huge expansion, the vote ICANN's board of directors meeting in Singapore was clear cut, with 13 voting in favour, one against, and two abstaining.

"Today's decision will usher in a new Internet age," said Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of ICANN's board of directors, with a rhetorical flourish. "We have provided a platform for the next generation of creativity and inspiration."

"ICANN has opened the Internet's naming system to unleash the global human imagination," ehoed his colleague, Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO of ICANN. "Today's decision respects the rights of groups to create new Top Level Domains in any language or script. We hope this allows the domain name system to better serve all of mankind," he said.

The organisation will now devote its time to explaining what the change means to Internet users with applications for the new generic top-level domains (or 'gTLDs') opening on 12 January next year.

With the world still working mainly through.com and country domains such as .co.uk, bolstered by organisational domains such as .gov and .edu, the agreed change looks radical.

In the new system, the part of the address that would be occupied by .com, or .co.uk will now be open, initially, to any one of hundreds of possibilities, a useful example list of which can be found here. Longer term, this will expand severalfold, at each stage taking into account the rights of band name holders.

Huge questions remain. The rules over what is possible, who will be able to register and with what restrictions could lead to confusion. Thus far, consumers and even many businesses know almost nothing about the change.

There is also an issue of cost with the free-market registration services that stand to gain happy, while some in the business world less so. Many businesses will have to register expensive domains simply to protect their brands as they did in the past during completely useless domain expansions such as the one that brought suffixes such as.info and .eu into existence.

Others fret over the cybercrime possibilities, particularly the way a rush of new domains might be used to bamboozle a confused public that has has just got its head around the original domain structure.

Perhaps the most fundamental question of all is whether any of this matters in the first place. Internet users increasingly access the web using search engines straight from the address bar of browsers, via services such as Google and Microsoft and using mobile computers for which domains were never designed.

Expanding gTLDs could turn out to be a reform that has happened a decade late.

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John E Dunn

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