Global internet body The Internet Corporation For Assigned Names And Numbers (ICANN) has voted to allow the number of web suffixes to expand almost without limitation. Currently, there are 22 international top level domain suffixes, such as .info, .net, .org, .gov and .jobs.

The decision means that people and companies will now be able to set up a website with almost any address. Rod Beckstrom, president and chief executive officer for ICANN said “Icann has opened the internet’s addressing system to the limitless possibilities of the human imagination”.

The suffixes can be used to categorise brands and products such as .google or .ipod, as well as subjects, such as industry and location: .bank, .hotel, .travel, .london. It will also now be possible to have website names entirely in Cyrillic, Mandarin or any other script. The 290 country suffixes such as .uk and .fr will remain unchanged for now.

The decision to expand the web suffixes comes after over five years of negotiations. With the expansion comes the risk that domain name squatters will take advantage of new suffixes and hold trade mark owners to ransom by applying for suffixes which use that trade mark. However the cost of applying for a suffix – ICANN has set a fee of $185,000 (£114,000) per suffix – will act as a deterrent for many would be domain name squatters.

In addition to paying a fee, applicants will have to show they have a legitimate claim to the name they are buying. They will need to go through a guidebook of nearly 400 pages to prepare their bids ahead of the first suffix auctions which begin on 12 January 2012 and run for 90 days. Suffixes will be auctioned if multiple parties have legitimate claims although ICANN expects that companies will reach deals to avoid a public auction.

The decision is an opportunity for brands to take greater control of their online presence and use suffixes as an indicator that a website is legitimate in coming from the brand owner. But for many brands the cost of applying for and maintaining a suffix will be too prohibitive. The unlimited number of suffixes is also likely to create consumer confusion particularly when it comes to websites which use scripts which are unfamiliar to the user.

At least the current limited number of international top level domain suffixes brings with it a level of certainty with the brand owner usually owning the .com suffix. Time will tell how popular the uptake is for the new suffixes.

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