Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 11:35 UK

Crucial vote on internet's future

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones explains the domain name system

A complete overhaul of the way people navigate the internet could begin following a crucial vote in Paris.

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

If approved, firms could turn brands into web addresses while individuals could also grab a unique domain based on their name, for example.

Icann will also decide whether to allow names in Asian and Arabic languages.

"We are making it open for anyone to apply in any character set, not just Roman characters," Dr Paul Twomey, chief executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which acts as a sort of regulator for the net, told BBC News

He said that the proposals would result in the biggest change to the way the internet worked in decades.

HAVE YOUR SAY
It really won't make any difference. People want .com. All others just add confusion
Ian Gibson, UK

"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," he said.

"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."

Brand culture

Icann has been working towards opening up net addresses for the past few years.

"We've done two rounds of experimental introductions over the last five or six years to see how it would work and the Icann board is now considering [expanding that]," explained Dr Twomey.

BBC infographic showing domain name sales

At the moment 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.

The .com suffix is the most popular and lucrative.

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.

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

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".

Companies will also be able to bid for addresses based on their brand names, although some believe they maybe faced with too much choice.

"Does Tesco want .supermarket or .groceries?" said Graham Hales, of branding consultancy Interbrand.

"Or maybe it wants .value or .everylittlehelps. The choice is endless."

This never ending list of potential web real estate could cause problems, believes Jay Scott Evans, former chair of Icann's intellectual property division and senior legal advisor for Yahoo.

"Why should brand owners have to invest huge amounts of money to protect their brands," he said.

It is a view echoed by Geoff Wicks, chief executive of NBT, owner of the domain name registry Netnames.

Cable

"It will be expensive and pointless," he said. "It will be a big problem for companies as they will have to buy up lots of domains to cover themselves."

Icann defends these claims and points out that companies will be able to secure domain names easily based on their intellectual property.

"There will be opportunities to protect brand names by appealing if someone else has put forward their brand," said Dr Twomey.

This will protect so-called "cyber squatting", where people buy-up domain names associated with well known names.

However, it does admit some 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."

Adult web

However, others back the plans. For example, parts of the adult industry plan to carve out an area of the web specifically for their content.

This would be represented by the .xxx domain name, which has been proposed for more than half a decade by its backers, but blocked by 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 would be, but it is expected to be at least several thousand dollars.

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




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