The regulatory body that oversees Internet domain names has agreed to end restrictions on suffixes for site names, a change that will dramatically increase the number of possible site names while opening up new branding opportunities for companies, cities and others.
Currently, Internet site owners are limited to a handful of suffixes, such as dot.com, dot.org or dot.gov.
But starting in January registrants will be able to invent their own suffixes.
Major companies are expected to create suffixes with their own names. Japanese electronics giant, Canon, has already said it plans to apply for rights to use domain names ending with dot-canon. The German capital city, Berlin, has reportedly expressed interest in a dot.berlin suffix. Other suffixes could help organize the Internet by language, geography or industry.
The change was overwhelmingly approved Monday in Singapore in a vote of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
The Los Angeles-based non-profit organization is expected to begin taking applications for the new names on January 12.
Brad White, ICANN's director of global media affairs, says opening the Internet address system will have far-reaching social and commercial impact.
"It will afford a possibility for innovation, creativity, branding, marketing. We can't fully predict the impact that this change will have, but we know it will have tremendous impact, in much the same way that nobody could predict social media. Nobody could predict the popularity of Skype. No one could predict the popularity of Facebook or Twitter. What we have done is removed a barrier to innovation," says White.
There are currently 22 generic top-level domains, also known as gTLDs. Dot.com, dot.org and dot.info are a few examples. There are also about 250 country-level domains like dot.uk for Britain or dot.cn for China.
Several hundred new gTLDs are expected to come into existence under the new system.
In addition to the interest of big corporate brands, organizations such as cities or other communities are expected to apply. However, with an initial price tag of $185,000 for each application, none but the richest individuals can be expected to seek their own personal domains.
Still, the move is an opportunity for commercial brands to gain more control over their on-line presence and send visitors more directly to parts of their websites.
Brad White, of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names, says the new suffixes will have other benefits.
"One of the biggest changes that this will mean to the Internet is an expansion of the use of non-Latin characters. So, people who speak Cyrillic, or Arabic or Chinese can now use their own generic top-level domains at the end of an Internet address. It will vastly, we believe, increase the number of Internet users," he says.
The new domain system will also change how ICANN works. Until now, it has overseen names and performed some other tasks, but has had little involvement in the Internet's thornier issues.
With the new changes, ICANN will have a role in policing how gTLDs are operated, bought and sold.