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A change is about to hit the Internet and it involves a basic thing, the addresses we type into our Web browsers to go to specific sites. The primary governing body for the Net — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — has voted to increase drastically the number of top-level domains now available. Right now there are 22 domain endings, and many have grown familiar with use. Most people know that commercial sites end in .com (thus the term ‘dotcom’), while educational sites end in .edu, and governmental sites end in .gov.

We’ve had this system in place for a long time and it has worked well enough. What ICANN has decided to do is a sea-change, allowing almost any word a company wants to use to be set up as a top-level domain. A huge corporation like Walmart, for example, can pony up the cash to buy a .walmart top-level domain. At that point, it could set up Web addresses like www.groceries.walmart, or www.drugs.walmart, or any other specialty site it wanted to create.

Get the idea? This is about full control over a brand, but the effects go far beyond that. The new scheme is also a kind of protection racket, with companies forced to defend their turf on the off chance that someone else will grab a domain name they might benefit from. The benefits are questionable (though much hyped) but the costs are not. As the number of top-level domains skyrockets, ICANN will charge close to $200,000 upfront for each, along with $25,000 a year in user fees. We’ll see thousands of these new top-level domains grabbed up by companies as anxious to protect competitive advantage as they are to maximize their own Web presence.

Brace yourself for the new Net land grab. Years ago I bought the rights to a domain, centauri-dreams.org, where I run a site devoted to space exploration. I soon received an email from a fellow who told me he owned two closely related domains: centauri-dreams.com and centauri-dreams.net. He told me what a good idea it would be for me to buy these domains from him to prevent users from being confused over the proper address. This mini-shakedown resulted from the fact that you could buy a domain within the old top level domain system at a low price, and then turn around and sell it to anyone you chose. Some people bought up huge numbers of such domain names with the express purpose of reselling them.

Tactics like this were rampant in the early days of the Net. Back then, when everyone was trying to figure out how useful a worldwide network might be for business, a lot of people snapped up domain names like macdonalds.com and macys.com. You name it, if there was a chance that a profit could be made from a Web address, it was a tempting target. The movement online took a long time and many large companies were slow on the uptake, not realizing that they would have to spend big bucks acquiring the domain names they needed.

Now we’re about to have a land rush of equivalent proportions, though it will be spread not among a few top-level domains but among thousands of new ones created on the fly. Many corporations and large organizations will be quick to acquire the names they want and more to make sure competitors don’t get them. Only one company may want, for example, a top-level domain like .pepsi, but quite a few might be looking for something like .financial or .restaurant.

So brace yourself. The new system begins in 2012, with the first applications accepted on January 12. The big brand names are going to be all over this and the fireworks should be spectacular where they collide. What a waste of money this is in a bad economy. The new top-level domain system will drain corporate coffers in order to take competitive positions that have been artificially created by bureaucrats. That sounds like the essence of wasteful spending, but if you think that will stop the new Net land rush, you’re very much mistaken.

Paul Gilster

Paul Gilster is a longtime technology and aerospace writer with a fascination for how we use computers.

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