Businesses will be free to choose any suffix they please for their internet addresses after a decision yesterday to expand the choices beyond current staples such as ".com", ".co" and ".org".
The decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to liberalise the online naming system - allowing the creation of customised domain names - follows a three-year project.
"What we are now considering is a global equivalent of people moving to liberalised telecommunication markets or electricity markets," Paul Twomey, Icann's chief executive, said at the organisation's meeting in Paris.
Icann, a non-profit body that co-ordinates the naming system, plans to accept the first round of applications for new domain names in April or May next year. It expects the cost of registering a new suffix to be at least $100,000 (€64,00, £50,000) - far higher than the current price of a ".com" name, which is as little as $14.
Some analysts worry that the changes could yield more costs for businesses operating online as they try to protect their presence on the web.
The last large-scale domain launch - of ".biz" in 2001 - did not reduce the popularity and dependency on the ".com" suffix. Registrations for ".biz" have lagged far behind ".com", with fewer than 2m names in use compared with more than 77m for ".com". A 2002 Harvard Law School study found that about 30 per cent of ".biz" registrations were made by organisations that already owned the ".com" version of their name.
The new move is unlikely to cause an immediate surge in the number of customised domain names online.
Icann hopes the high cost and a rigorous application process will deter any "domain squatters", who purchase company-related domain names and try to sell them back to the company for a profit.
Any disputes over names would be referred to an independent arbitrator, who would consider existing trademarks and intellectual property rights.
However, Alex Burmaster, an analyst at the internet research company Nielsen Netratings, said fraudsters and "domaineers" - who buy up groups of domain names - were likely to benefit from the changes.
"We could see an exponential rise in dispute cases," he said. "The two biggest losers will be businesses and customers. It will be a big cost for companies, and confusing with all the potential domains."
Jonathan Robinson, chief operating officer of NetNames, a consultancy and registration company, said he feared that the move "would dilute online brands, putting them at risk. I'm not convinced this is being done in the right way".
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