In addition to the likes of .com and .net, the Internet might soon have Web addresses ending in .fun, .cars and .prettymuchanythingyouwant.
Heralding the most dramatic expansion of virtual real estate in 40 years, the international group controlling Internet addresses decided Thursday to let anyone apply to be in charge of new last names for the Web.
The Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers -- which is as close as the Internet gets to a governing body -- opted to open up the process to companies, individuals and coalitions. That means that any word or name approved by ICANN could follow the dot in a Web address.
Big corporations and Web address sellers -- as well as scammers looking for new places to lure unsuspecting Web surfers -- are expected to make bids for some of the new classes of Web address.
The application procedure is still being hammered out, but it won't be cheap or hassle-free.
Officials at ICANN, the Marina Del Rey nonprofit contracted by the Commerce Department to run the domain-name system for website addresses, said they expected the initial fee to be less than $100,000 -- though it might not fall much short of that.
"We will start accepting applications in April and May next year," ICANN Chief Executive Paul Twomey said from Paris, where the board adopted the plan at a milestone meeting. "We don't know how many we'll get. I expect it will be hundreds or thousands, but it may be tens of thousands."
Twomey said there was little reason not to open up the process and offer more choice in the Web address endings, known formally as top-level domains.
But critics said consumers were likely to be more confused and in some cases duped by hustlers using unfamiliar addresses.
Lauren Weinstein, a tech policy consultant, said ICANN had become a captive of one of its largest interest groups, the companies that buy and sell domain names.
"The process has been hijacked to a significant extent by folks who see the domain-name system as their personal piggy bank," Weinstein said.
Those who succeed in establishing their own Web fiefdoms will have to handle the technological issues -- making sure people trying to find, for example, a .pickle website actually get there -- as well as the business issues.
Big companies may want to boost their brand presence by buying an extension like .ibm and then keeping hold of all the sites under the new umbrella, such as computers.ibm and software.ibm.
Other applicants probably will be motivated by the prospect of peddling thousands of Web addresses with endings of their own devising.
Companies already in the domain-name business, such as Network Solutions Inc. and Santa Monica-based Demand Media Inc.'s ENom, should see a big boost in volume.
Critics warned that some would rush in to grab trademarked names or misspelled versions of those names -- as in Gooogle.mail or mail.Gooogle -- and then take their chances in court if sued for violating trademarks.
In the meantime, they could sell ads on those sites or post malicious code that could infect the computers of unwary visitors.
"Google doesn't want a scam artist running google.whatever," said Weinstein, co-founder of the nonprofit People For Internet Responsibility. "It's almost like an extortion racket -- you'd better buy your name in this new top-level domain or you're going to get blamed."
Twomey said trademark holders would be afforded some protections, such as the right to object before new address endings go live. Disputes will be sent to arbitration.
As for last names that hold broad appeal and attract a host of legitimate aspirants, such as .california or .sports, applicants will be asked to work something out together. If they fail, an auction would be the most likely outcome.
Twomey said throwing open the gates might cost ICANN about $20 million to promote the new system, process the applications and assess the business plans of applicants. ICANN plans to earn the money back through application fees.
Under its existing process, ICANN has approved 21 suffixes, and most have flopped, said Ron Jackson, editor of a trade publication on domain names called DNJournal.
More than 76 million .com names had been registered by the end of last month, while .biz, the 10th-most popular, had less than 2 million.
An increase in clutter might make the tried-and-true endings, especially .com, stand out even more.
"People have branded in their minds the original extensions -- .com, .net and .org," Jackson said. "Downtown real estate in Los Angeles doesn't get any less valuable because someone's building out in Oxnard."