NEW YORK — Bidding will begin this week for words and brand names such as ".sport," ''.NYC" and ".bank" to join ".com" as online monikers.
Up to 1,000 domain name suffixes — the ".com" in an Internet address — could be added each year in the most sweeping change to the domain name system since its creation in the 1980s.
To some, the system will lead to ".cash." To others, it will mean ".confusion."
The idea is to let Las Vegas hotels, casinos and other attractions congregate around ".Vegas," or a company such as Canon Inc. to draw customers to "cameras.Canon" or "printers.Canon." The new system will also make Chinese, Japanese and Swahili versions of ".com" possible.
Some companies and entrepreneurs have already expressed interest in applying for a suffix and possibly earning millions of dollars a year from people and groups wanting a website that ends in that name.
Others are skeptical, though. They worry that an expansion will mean more addresses available to scams that use similar-sounding names such as "Amazom" rather than "Amazon" to trick people into giving passwords and credit card information. Others worry that new suffixes could create additional platforms for hate groups or lead to addresses ending in obscenities.
The oversight agency for Internet addresses, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, spent years crafting guidelines meant to curtail nefarious activities. Still, critics say ICANN is rushing to expand the naming system without putting enough safeguards in place.
"You don't want a ship to have holes... and ask everybody to come on board," said Dan Jaffe, the chief lobbyist at the Association of National Advertisers, which represents 400 companies and 10,000 brand names. "You should close the holes, then run a pilot project to see if the systems you put in place are actually effective."
There's also a question of how useful the new names will be, at least among English speakers. Alternatives to ".com" introduced over the past decade have had mixed success. These days, Internet users are more likely to type "new Muppet movie" into their browser's search box than to know the official site is at "Disney.go.com/muppets."
ICANN will start taking bids for new suffixes on Thursday at 12:01 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (Wednesday at 7:01 p.m. EST).
That doesn't mean people will be able to type in "Caribbean.vacation" or "iPad.Apple" right away. Initial bidding will stay open until April. After that, ICANN will accept challenges for trademark conflicts and other reasons. Auctions would be held should multiple bidders seek the same suffix. It could take months more for winning bidders to set up.
The new names won't appear in general use until at least spring of 2013. Applicants facing challenges may have to wait until 2014.
Names will be restricted to the richest companies and groups, as it will cost $185,000 to apply and at least $25,000 a year to maintain one. A 10-year commitment is required. The fees do not include operational costs, such as computers and staff. By comparison, a personal address with a common suffix such as ".com" usually costs less than $10 a year.
Despite the startup costs, suffixes could be lucrative to the winning bidders. A company called ICM Registry receives some $60 a year for every ".xxx" registered, for instance. It's not just pornography sites interested. Colleges and universities have been buying names such as "KUgirls.xxx" to make sure others can't.
Although companies such as Apple Inc. and Canon aren't likely to make any suffixes they get available to the general public, other entrepreneurs have been eyeing ".web" and others. They won't be the only ones cashing in. Companies have formed specifically to sell names on behalf of those entrepreneurs, and ICANN gets a cut.
In recent weeks, members of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Commerce Department have raised concerns.
"A rapid, exponential expansion ... has the potential to magnify both the abuse of the domain name system and the corresponding challenges we encounter in tracking down Internet fraudsters," FTC commissioners said in a letter to ICANN.
ICANN plans to proceed with its schedule. ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom said many adjustments have been made to address objections raised over the years. Although Jaffe said several other concerns were ignored, Beckstrom said he has heard nothing new in the recent critiques.
"There are parties that would like to see other protections, or want to see this or that," Beckstrom said. "These discussions are going to go on for a long time."
Beckstrom said many businesses and groups outside the U.S. have been clamoring for more choices, and ICANN didn't want them to wait longer.
From a technical standpoint, domain names tell computers on the Internet where to find a website or send an email message. Without them, people would have to remember clunky numerals such as "220.127.116.11," which is the underlying Internet Protocol address for "ap.org."
The monikers have grown to mean much more, however. Amazon.com Inc. has built its brand on its website address, while bloggers take pride in running sites with their own domain names.
Theo Hnarakis, CEO of the domain name registration company Melbourne IT, said his organization already has prepared more than 100 suffix applications for financial services, airlines, gambling sites and others. He declined to name any clients.
Although suffixes added over the past decade haven't been as popular as ".com," nearly all of the most desirable ".com" addresses have been taken. New businesses are often stuck with difficult-to-remember names such as "TheFloristInsideThePeanutShop.com." The expansion would allow "Peanut.florist."
Customers might be able to find that florist through Google or Bing, but Hnarakis said merchants often have to buy ads to lure them. And an Internet search might lead customers to a rival — such as the Cheaper Florist Outside The Peanut Shop.
The demand for new suffixes appears greater outside the U.S. That's because many of the ".com" names had been grabbed by Americans who got on the Internet first. In addition, suffixes had been largely limited to the 26 letters of the English alphabet until now.
ICANN has already allowed two major expansions of the addressing system. In 2000, it approved seven new domains, including ".info" and ".biz." It began accepting new bids again in 2004. It added seven from that round, including ".xxx" last year. It also cleared others on an ad hoc basis, including ".eu" for the European Union and ".ps" for the Palestinian territories.
Under the new system, the application process will be streamlined.
Expanding the pool of suffixes was one of ICANN's chief tasks when the U.S. government ceded oversight of domain names to the organization in 1998. But progress was slow because of objections and concerns from government groups, businesses interests and others. ICANN is finally ready to implement the system, despite calls for further delays.
"This is a change, and whenever there's a change, there is anxiety," Beckstrom said. "We're doing our best to administer a fair and equitable system that the global community has designed."