Lost in Cyberspace? Take an unsignposted turning down confusion.alley

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The Independent Online
If you find Internet names confusing now, just wait - a whole new slew of suffixes is on the way to join the coms, orgs, nets and govs of Cyberspace. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, reports.

When you log on to the Internet and surf to the site www.independent.com, do you expect to find the electronic version of this newspaper? If so, you'll be disappointed - independent.com is owned by the Santa Barbara Independent, a local American newspaper. But if the site was called www.independent.news, would that be this paper? Or would you know to go and look at www.independent.co.uk, where this newspaper really resides electronically?

More conflicting names, like that could arise after the US government yesterday gave tacit approval to schemes that could add suffixes like .news, .sex and .store to more familiar ones such as .com and .org.

However, some experts say that the idea - intended to move the process of assigning Internet "domain names" into the private sector - could actually splinter the global network into competing sectors which do not recognise each other. That would add to the already growing confusion for users and companies aiming to protect their trademarks.

The British consultancy company Prince plc recently fought a court battle with Prince Sporting Goods, the American company, over who had the rights to the domain name "prince.com", which had been registered with Network Solutions, the private company which performs domain registration on behalf of the US government. Prince plc won its case.

For the new domains to work, Network Solutions (whose contract expires in March) and many other companies will have to alter their computers to recognise them. If they do not, the new domains will be cut off from the rest of the Net.

"There is a real danger here of fragmentation," warned John Wood, senior Internet consultant at Prince plc. "The point of e-commerce is choice for consumers who can do business in a stable environment on the Internet," he said.

The proposal published yesterday by the US government suggests adding five new, but unspecified, "top-level domains" to the existing six appended to Internet addresses - .com, .org, .edu, .mil, .gov and .net. There are also 200-odd countries with their own domain suffixes, such as .uk.

Domain names greatly simplify the process of finding a site. Every location on the Internet, from an e-mail address to a Web site, has an underlying numerical address - such as for www.independent.co.uk. When an Internet user types a Web address into a browser, the software sends a request that ultimately gets the needed numerical address from one of less than a dozen computers called "root servers" scattered around the world.

Now the US government, in proposing that it should extricate itself from running the domain registration service altogether, has suggested that more top level domains should be created, and that each one should be administered by private companies on a commercial basis. This would mean that a company controlling registration of the .sex domain would extract a fee from companies, and assign them a unique numerical address for each name.