There's a land grab happening that could fundamentally alter the way the average Web user experiences the Internet.
Since the mid-1990s, the experience of visiting the Internet can be encapsulated in three letters and one punctuation mark: .com. When spoken out loud: dot-com. It's the most common suffix on the Internet, representing more than 100 million websites, and it has become a stand-in for the Web as a whole.
Not for long.
First, some terminology. A second-level domain name is everything that comes before the dot in the Web address: Facebook. eBay. Google. These are easy to buy — if the address you want is available, you can purchase it for less than $20 with a click online. The top-level domain of a Web address is everything that comes after the dot: the .gov, the .org, the .mil. They are a foundational muscle of the Internet.
Now, ICANN, the California-headquartered Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has offered the chance to create and buy what comes after the dot.
The expansion will include about 1,900 new Web names. Over the next few months, users will be able to visit sites at .luxury, .gay, .mom and .bible, to name just a few.
"It means that finding things is going to be harder," said Joseph Konstan, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Minnesota. "We're going to depend more on search engines like Google, which we do anyway, but it's going to be even more true."
True, Jane Doe may have more choices if she wants to buy a domain matching her name for a website. Maybe there's a dot-something that fits nicely with her interests.
But if she wants to be easily discovered, or prevent others from besmirching her good name, should she occupy dot-com and dot-whatever and dot-something else, too?
"In the end, I don't think we know yet if this is going to be good or bad," Konstan said.
The largest previous expansion of top domain names occurred in 2001. That was a small endeavor: .biz, .info, .aero, etc. None of them became hugely popular.
Ask Brad White why this is happening — Is the Internet too crowded? — and he chuckles. "The premise of that question is that need dictates innovation," said White, director of global media relations for ICANN, which was founded in 1998 in response to a proposal by the federal government's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. But need, White said, doesn't dictate innovation. "No one demanded Facebook" before Mark Zuckerberg introduced it. "No one demanded Twitter." Sometimes the technology is invented, and then users figure out what it's good for.
How much is that domain in the window?
Adrienne McAdory, a Washington, D.C., military contractor, pounced at the opportunity.
All she needed was the $185,000 application fee. Which McAdory had, because, she explains, "I'm old, and I'm frugal" (she's 42). So she worked through the lengthy application process, named her company Atgron, and, two months ago, learned she had won the rights to own a domain: .wed.
McAdory's vision: Lots of engaged couples want their own wedding sites, but the addresses they want aren't available because other couples are already parked on them. Through the .wed domain, couples could purchase an inexpensive address — MarkandJessica.wed — for two years, long enough to see them married. After that, the site's cost would drastically rise, pricing the couple out, leaving the space open for a new Jessica and Mark.
From a business side, one sees why this is a big deal: competing interests scrabbling to stake out more space in the virtual world. But culturally, it also reflects the fact that the Internet is still relatively new — the equivalent of the party-line era of the telephone. What we have now doesn't begin to look like what we'll have in even 10 years. ICANN is in the final stages of application evaluations. New sites could appear as early as late September. "People," said White, "are going to sit down at their browsers and see a whole new world."
Almost as soon as the decision was announced, doubters began to question how this was all going to work. Things like trademark issues: Who can truly own the Bible, for example? The American Bible Society can — they're priority No. 1,114 in ICANN's randomly drawn list of submissions. In the application for .bible, the stated intention is to "Provide worldwide access to all qualified parties interested in disseminating or seeking information … about Bible issues."
Mixing logic with confusion
Others worry that the new Web will simply require too much of our brains: If we sometimes screw up whether a site is a dot-com or a dot-org, will we truly be able to remember whether it's a .book or a .church or a .music or a .party?
"The changes are going to add specificity and introduce a new search logic," said Jennie-Marie Larsen, who started a consulting firm just to help businesses figure out what to do with their new domains. She hopes it will tie existing communities closer together: A few years from now, all equestrian fans of the world might unite under .horse, which has been purchased by Top Level Domain Holdings, a business created for the new market.
Many of the new domain names are not even in the Latin characters that make up the Internet today. This expansion represents the first time that characters of other languages will get a chance at domain names: The No. 1 prioritization has been drawn by the Vatican, or rather, by the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. It applied for a domain in Chinese characters that, when translated, mean "Catholic."
Republicans have acquired .gop — but Democrats haven't acquired .dem (it's yet unclaimed), which Larsen finds fascinating. "It was very clear with the 2008 and 2012 elections that the Obama campaign wiped the floor with them, because of his use of social media," she said. The new development "means the Democrats are out of the game; there's no chance to catch up."
This illustrates the land-grab aspect of the Internet, but it also hints at both the bigness and the smallness of online existence: an Internet so big that it takes nearly 2,000 domain names to contain it all, but one small enough that if a Chinese man visiting the Vatican fell in love with a representative from the American Bible Society while pursuing their dressage obsessions on .horse, they could announce their nuptials with a personal site on .wed.
Staff writer Katie Humphrey contributed to this report.