The Web is about to have its big bang. About 1,000 new generic top-level domain names, or gTLDs (the last bit of an internet address, such as the com in qz.com or Nextov.com) will come into existence this year. On Feb. 4, anybody will be able to create and start running a website on the first of the new domains. The number of alphabets in which you can create a web address will go from one—Latin—to at least a dozen including Chinese and Arabic. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be made. And our conception of the web will change entirely.
You may not have heard about this. That’s unsurprising. The infrastructure of the internet is rarely a sexy subject, except when it breaks spectacularly. New standards are constantly being adopted in the background. Who can keep track?
The coming deluge of new domains is different. It is highly visible, and will affect everybody who uses the web. What’s less certain is whether it is strictly necessary. Proponents argue that it will benefit people and businesses (small ones especially) by giving them more addresses to choose from. Critics call it a massive land grab by both entrepreneurs and some of the world’s most powerful internet companies.
First, a little background
Domain names, properly known as Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) and more commonly known as web addresses, are overseen by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). They follow a hierarchy, much like physical addresses. If the web were a country, then a generic top-level domain like .com might be the state or province, and a second-level domain, like google.com, would be a city. Neighborhoods within the city can be found in either a suffix (google.com/images) or a prefix (images.google.com).
Until 2013, there were only 22 functioning gTLDs. The most familiar predated the creation of ICANN: .com, .net, .org, .edu, .gov, and .mil. Another seven came into existence in 2000, and a further eight in 2004. Most of the new domains in these two waves never really took off. You will sometimes spot .biz or .info in the wild, but more niche ones such as .mobi (aimed at mobile sites) and .xxx (for porn) got little attention from the markets they were aimed at.
In addition, countries get their own top-level domains, called ccTLDs. Familiar examples include .de (Germany), .ca (Canada) or .co (Colombia, now used mostly for other purposes). These form another huge chunk of the internet.