Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Monday, 23 June 2008 12:26 UK

'Shake-up' for internet proposed

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Icann oversees the structure of the net

The net could see its biggest transformation in decades if plans to open up the address system are passed.

The net's regulators will vote on Thursday to decide if the strict rules on so-called top level domain names, such as .com or .uk, can be relaxed.

If approved, it could allow companies to turn their brands into domain names while individuals could also carve out their own corner of the net.

The move could also see the launch of .xxx, after years of wrangling.

Top level domains are currently limited to individual countries, such as .uk (UK) or .it (Italy), as well as to commerce, .com, and to institutional organisations, such as .net, or .org.

To get around the restrictions, some companies have used the current system to their own ends.

For example, the Polynesia island nation Tuvalu, has leased the use of the .tv address to many television firms.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which acts as a sort of regulator for the net as well as overseeing the domain name system, has been working towards opening up net addresses for the last three years.

It's a massive increase in the geography of the real estate of the internet
Dr Paul Twomey, Icann

The plan would also allow for the new domain names to be internationalised, and so could be written in scripts for Asian and Arabic languages.

Dr Paul Twomey, chief executive of Icann, told BBC News that the proposals would result in the biggest change to the way the internet worked in decades.

"The impact of this will be different in different parts of the world. But it will allow groups, communities and business to express their identities online.

"Like the United States in the 19th Century, we are in the process of opening up new real estate, new land, and people will go out and claim parts of that land and use it for various reasons they have.

"It's a massive increase in the geography of the real estate of the internet."

Arbitration process

Hundreds of new domain names could be created by the end of the year, rising to thousands in the future.

I'm all for tighter regulation, not opening it up further which would only facilitate fraud
Karen, London

Icann says any string of letters can be registered as a domain, but there will be an independent arbitration process for people with grounds for objection.

The openness of the new system could pave the way for a .xxx domain name, after more than half a decade of wrangling between its backers and Icann.

The latest attempt to launch .xxx was rejected by Icann last year on the grounds that approval would put the agency into the position of a content regulator.

When asked about the possibility of a .xxx domain name, Dr Twomey repeated only that the new system would be "open to anyone".

The move could yet be blocked as the independent arbitration panel can reject domains based on "morality or public order" grounds.

Dr Twomey said Icann was still working through how much the application fee to register a domain name will be, but it is expected to be at least several thousand dollars.

'Cost recovery'

"We are doing this on a cost recovery basis. We've already spent $10m on this," he said.

Individuals will be able to register a domain based on their own name, or any other string of letters, as long as they can show a "business plan and technical capacity".

While companies will be able to secure domain names based on their intellectual property easily, some domain names could become subject to contention and a bidding war.

Dr Twomey said: "If there is a dispute, we will try and get the parties together to work it out. But if that fails there will be an auction and the domain will go to the highest bidder."

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