The most famous domains on the Web are getting some dot-competition.
The URLs we have typed into our browsers since we first connected to the Internet -- .com, .net, .org -- could soon be joined by .google, .amazon and even .porn.
It's part of a significant expansion in what are known as top-level domains initiated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a nonprofit group that oversees domain names. ICANN released a list Wednesday of the 1,930 applications it received for new top-level domains after soliciting proposals in January.
ICANN says the move will unleash new creative potential on the Web and benefit consumers. But the expansion has met with stiff criticism from some business leaders and the U.S. government, which assert that adding hundreds of top-level domains will result in confusion for Web surfers and agony for holders of trademarks and copyrights. Others suggest the move will effectively privatize the Internet.
"It is our fundamental obligation to increase competition and consumer choice, and to foster innovation, and this program delivers on that," said Rod Beckstrom, ICANN CEO, at a news conference in London.
But trademark attorneys have been counseling clients on how to respond to the profusion of new domains, which could create confusion in the marketplace. Cyber-squatting -- the practice of purchasing domain names of popular terms in hopes of reselling them at a premium -- is expected to increase.
"You've got over 1,900 new (domains) that are being applied for," said Scott Bain, litigation counsel for the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group that has expressed concern over the domain expansion.
"They could take registrations on unlimited variations of trademarked names. Or they could have websites selling content without the authorization of the content owner. It just multiplies exponentially the cyber-squatting that already occurs with dot-com."
Other trademark attorneys said that the list of released names appears to show less potential for dispute than had been predicted. There were no examples of third parties attempting to register domains for brands they were not associated with -- a .coke or .pepsi, for example. (Neither soft-drink company sought to register a domain for itself.)
"To the extent brand-name owners have filed for their brand names, it looks to me like they don't have any competition for their own brands," said Katherine Basile, a trademark attorney with Novak Druce + Quigg.
But many companies, including some in the Bay Area, are seeking to lock up the rights to what could become lucrative channels for marketing, customer service and more whimsical endeavors.
Google applied for 101 domains, including many referring to its products (.android, .youtube, .plus) and some that the company said had "creative potential" (.dog,.wow, .lol). Apple took a more conservative approach, applying for only .apple.
Safeway in Pleasanton was one of two applicants for .grocery, along with Walmart. In cases where multiple parties have attempted to register a domain -- and there are 230 such cases on the list ICANN released -- the domain will likely be sold to the highest bidder.
There are now 21 generic top-level domains, led by .com, and 280 country-code domains such as .uk for the United Kingdom. ICANN has introduced generic suffixes such as .jobs and .mobi in previous years, with none of them achieving registrations comparable with .com.
Becoming the registrar of a top-level domain isn't cheap. Each proposal cost the applicant $185,000, and maintaining the service will cost $25,000 annually.
It remains to be seen whether companies will be able to profit from their investments. The expansion of domains comes at a time when Web surfing is on the decline, as people spend more time using social networks and smart-phone applications.
But advocates of the changes say the domains could be lucrative. Neustar, an Internet services company that managed more than 350 applications for the domains, says successful applicants will profit by selling registrations on the domain along with consulting and marketing services around the purchase.
"It really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," said Alex Berry, vice president and general manager enterprise services for Neustar.
Critics, including the Association of National Advertisers, say companies that have no interest in domain names face pressure to apply to prevent their brands from falling into the wrong hands.
ICANN will allow trademark owners and others to file objections to the proposed domain names, and will begin evaluating applicants next month based on technical and other requirements, according to the group's website. The first approved domains may be ready early next year, while others may take longer.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission in December said a proliferation of suffixes may create opportunities for fraud. ICANN should introduce the expansion as a pilot program and reduce the number of domains created, the FTC said.
"What ICANN is doing seems to us to have very little competitive benefit and a lot of cost to consumers in terms of easier ways for malefactors to engage in fraud," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said this month.
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