PARIS - Move over .com and .org. Get ready for a nearly infinite variety of new Web addresses ending in words like .perfume, .sports and .paris.
Yesterday, the Internet's main oversight agency approved the most sweeping changes to the network's address system since its creation.
According to new rules unanimously passed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, at its meeting here, any company, organization or country will soon be able to apply for a new Web address extension, called a top-level domain.
That could smooth the way for Web addresses that end in city names, brands and generic words. It could also sow confusion in the minds of Web users, create a host of new ways to exploit the Web addressing system and trigger a wave of legal skirmishes over applications to register trademarks - .coke, for example.
The ICANN board also passed another, less controversial, proposal that would allow these domains to be registered in scripts other than Roman characters, such as Chinese, Arabic and Cyrillic. Specific countries could receive the equivalent of their two-letter country code, such as Bulgaria's .bg, in their native alphabet.
"We're expecting a broad range of applicants. Indigenous communities might come forward to protect aspects of their language and culture," said Peter Dengate Thrush, ICANN's chairman. "We may see a dot.smith so that all the Smiths in the world will have a place."
"It's very exciting to see what people will do with those names," he said.
ICANN officials said any applications for the new domains would have to go through an independent review process. Third parties will be able to challenge applications on the grounds that a particular suffix could threaten "morality and public order." And companies will have the first priority when it comes to claiming their brand names.
If multiple parties want a name - as is already the case with .sports - conflicts will be settled through auctions.
Currently, the domain name system consists of more than 20 suffixes, which follow the last dot in a Web address. Domains have so far been generally restricted to labels for countries - .de for Germany, for example - and descriptions for broad categories like .com for commerce and .org for institutional organizations.
Address extensions that ICANN added more recently, like .biz in 2001 and .mobi in 2005, have been largely ignored and in some cases have been adopted mostly by spammers and other exploiters.
Ron Jackson, editor of Domain Journal, said he thought the new addresses would addle average Internet users. "If you have hundreds or thousands of new suffixes, they are not that easy to remember. I just see it as confusing," he said. Lauren Weinstein, a longtime Internet activist and co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, an education and policy firm in Los Angeles, said he worried that the new system would create huge opportunities for shady domain name registrars, who buy and sell domain names for profit, and for others who try to exploit the address system.
"The potential for mass confusion and fraud and phishing from these new domains seems to be what the primary impact will be for consumers," Weinstein said. "I fail to see the positive for consumers in this. It's all downside."
ICANN officials said that they would move slowly to introduce the changes, and would address many concerns and unanswered questions in a public review process that could last at least a year.
One question is how much the new top-level domains will cost. ICANN officials estimated prices would start in the low six figures, so the organization can recoup its expenses for developing the new service.