The regulatory body that oversees internet domain names has voted to end restricting them to suffixes like .com or .gov.
From January 12 next year, people will be able to apply to set up a website with almost any domain address if they can prove a legitimate claim and pay a hefty fee. The first approvals are likely by the end of 2012.
The new domain names will not be restricted to Latin characters written by users of English and other Western European languages but also other scripts, benefiting users of other languages such as Chinese and Russian.
The new gTLD, or generic top-level domain, programme was approved by 13 votes to one with two abstentions by the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) at a meeting in Singapore, officials who attended the meeting said.
“Today we made history. It’s the dawn of a new age. The internet addressing system has just been opened up,” ICANN President and CEO Rod Beckstrom said at a news conference.
Experts say corporations should be among the first to register, resulting in domain names ending in brands like .toyota, .apple or .coke. The move is seen as a big opportunity for brands to gain more control over their online presence and send visitors more directly to parts of their sites - and a danger for those who fail to take advantage.
Canon, for instance, has already said it plans to apply for rights to use domain names ending with .canon.
It will cost $185,000 to apply, and individuals or organisations will have to show a legitimate claim to the name they are buying. ICANN is taking on hundreds of consultants to whom it will outsource the job of adjudicating claims.
Today, just 22 gTLDs exist - .com, .org and .info are a few examples - plus about 250 country-level domains like .uk or .cn. After the change, several hundred new gTLDs are expected to come into existence.
As well as big brands, organisations such as cities or other communities are expected to apply. GTLDs such as .nyc, .london or .food could provide opportunities for many smaller businesses to grab names no longer available at the .com level - like bicycles.london or indian.food.
ICANN officials said there would be religious and social sensitivities to take into account when granting domain names - for instance a shop selling World War Two memorabilia might want to use a .nazi suffix, which could be banned in certain countries.
There had been some opposition to the change on the ICANN board because of a feeling that more time was needed for discussions with governments and other bodies before throwing the system open, officials said.
The new domains will also change how ICANN works, as it will have a role in policing how gTLDs are operated, bought and sold. Until now, it has overseen names and performed some other tasks but has been little involved in the internet’s thornier issues.
To prevent so-called cyber-squatting, when people register and sit on a high-profile name in the hope of selling it, gTLD owners will be expected to maintain operational sites. ICANN will have to approve transfers to new owners.