The Internet could become a much more confusing place next year, when its governing body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, plans to allow the creation of an unlimited number of top-level domain names. Those are the surnames on Internet addresses, such as dot-com, dot-net and, more recently, dot-travel.
At present, cyberspace is divided among what Icann calls a "limited range" of 21 such domains. The new plan would allow individuals and organizations to select their own.
Think dot-Trump, dot-Carnival or dot-Miami.
There could be an upside to this for companies with short brand names (they must be cheering at the major news networks).
There's also a downside: The initial up-front cost for a new domain is expected to be in the neighborhood of $100,000. Of course, the downside also has an upside, because such a price tag would likely discourage squatters and poachers, at least initially.
As the price comes down, however, things could get dicey because Icann, for now, is saying that trademarked names will not necessarily be "reserved" for their owners.
That sounds a little ominous, but we suspect that, over time, Coca Cola will make sure that it ends ups with dot-coke, though it's anybody's guess as to what will happen to dot-cola.
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We can't help thinking back to simpler times when dot-edu was for schools, dot-gov was for Uncle Sam and dot-com was strictly business, more or less.
Unfortunately, it is not the nature of the Web to be that organized. Domains no longer serve as firm boundaries between nets, coms and orgs, if they ever did.
The experience of two ASTAs is illustrative. The American String Teachers Association is at asta.net. The American Society of Travel Agents, which used to call its site "astanet," is at asta.org -- but you can get there by typing astanet.com.
In the absence of any rules governing what you can call yourself on the Web, consumers can waste a lot of time searching and double-checking sites to make sure they haven't been directed to an impersonator, making the Web more costly and inefficient for everyone.
It was against that background that dot-travel emerged with a promise to tidy things up and get all legitimate travel businesses into one corner of the Web. The original idea hinged on authentication and self-policing by the industry, which proved to be unrealizable goals.
But if authentication has value to consumers and to businesses on the Web, its future might lie in the smaller and more specialized domains that could arise under Icann's new proposal.
Eventually, top-level domains might become cheap enough and small enough for somebody to actually manage them.
If the price was right, for example, a membership organization could ensure that only members or affiliates in good standing could have Web or email addresses in the domain. The same could be true for cities, states or other geographic or political entities.
This kind of assurance could be worth having.
The question, as always, is whether it will be worth the cost if every entity with a brand to protect has to fence off yet another piece of cyberturf.