Internet overhaul wins approval
Icann's CEO, Paul Twomey, explains the significance
A complete overhaul of the way in which people navigate the internet has been given the go-ahead in Paris.
The net's regulator, Icann, voted unanimously to relax the strict rules on so-called "top-level" domain names, such as .com or .uk.
The decision means that companies could turn brands into web addresses, while individuals could use their names.
A second proposal, to introduce domain names written in Asian, Arabic or other scripts, was also approved.
"We are opening up a new world and I think this cannot be underestimated," said Roberto Gaetano, a member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann).
HAVE YOUR SAY Surely this will be nothing more than very, very irritating for people who want to use the internet?
Send us your commentsThe organisation said it had already been contacted about setting up domains in the Cyrillic script - used in many Eastern European countries.
"This is a huge step forward in the development of the internet - it will unblock something that has prevented a lot of people getting online," said Emily Taylor, director of legal and policy at Nominet, the national registry for .uk domain names.
"At the moment, there are one-and-a-half billion people online and four-and-a-half billion people for whom the Roman script just means nothing."
Dr Paul Twomey, chief executive of Icann, described passing the resolution as a "historic moment".
Icann has been working towards opening up the 25-year-old net addresses for nearly six years. It was one of its founding goals in 1998.
At the moment, top-level domains (TLDs) are currently limited to individual countries, such as .uk (UK) or .it (Italy), as well as to commerce, .com, and to institutional organisations, such as .net, or .org.
The .com suffix is the most popular and most costly TLD.
To get around the restrictions, some companies have used the current system to their own ends.
For example, the Polynesian island nation Tuvalu has leased the use of the .tv address to many television firms.
Under the new plans, domain names can be based on any string of letters, in any script.
Individuals will be able to register a domain based on their own name, for example, as long as they can show a "business plan and technical capacity".
Companies will be able to secure domain names based on their intellectual property.
The result could be thousands or even millions of new addresses.
"The most likely new TLDs to be pushed into the Icann process are those that have been under development for some time now - the geo-TLDs such as .cym for Wales, .sco for Scotland, .ldn for London, .nyc for New York and so on," explained Marcus Eggensperger, of Lycos Webhosting.
However, the cost of setting up a domain - at least initially - will be an expensive business.
"We expect that the fee will be in the low six figure dollar amounts," said Dr Twomey.
Q&A: Internet shake-up
The organisation has already spent close to $10m on the proposals - set to rise to $20m - and needs to recoup the costs.
"The costs of developing and implementing this policy will be borne by the applicants," he said. "But we're certainly not setting this up for profit."
Many have pointed out that because of the scale of the plan, its introduction and effect will have to be monitored closely.
"I am concerned about spending our TLD name inheritance for future TLD users," said Dave Wodelet, also of the Icann board.
"I certainly don't want future generations to look back at us with disdain for not being good stewards of this limited TLD resource."
However, he said, on balance, he felt that technical and administrative hurdles could be overcome.
It is not a view shared by everyone. Many businesses have pointed out that the new system could be very costly.
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones explains the domain name system
"The major issue with the potentially large number of new TLDs is going to be for brand owners who will want to protect their trademarks," said Mr Eggensperger.
"For a major pharmaceutical business, the cost of registering all of their trademarks when a new trademark is released runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds."
Others point out that some generic domain names - such as .news or .sport - could become subject to contention and a bidding war.
Icann has said that it was "aware of all of the concerns" and that it had "considered them very carefully".
It will implement an arbitration process to oversee disputes and has said that if all else fails a domain would go the "highest bidder" in an auction.
"On balance, the board feels that adopting this resolution is in the best interests of the internet and the public at large," said Icann board member Dennis Jennings.
The process of introducing the new system will start in 2009, with the first websites possibly coming online in the final quarter of the year.