The end of the dotcom era... internet's law-makers to overhaul naming rules

The letters "com" forming the end of web addresses are so familiar they've become part of our language, but companies could soon be able to replace them with their brand name in a shake-up in the way the web is organised.

Sites ending with brand names such as .apple, .coke or .lego could become commonplace from next year in the biggest overhaul of the way web addresses are awarded since the first .com site was registered 26 years ago.

Non-commercial and community sites could gain similar freedom, leading to addresses ending in city or town names. With creativity, it could give rise to complete web addresses forming phrases, such as or whatson.telly. Currently there are just 22 so-called "generic top-level domains", such as .org, and .info, and 250 country-specific endings like .uk. More than 84 million sites are registered ending in .com.

But thousands of new variations are expected to emerge after the change, which will create unlimited choice. Following years of preparation, the move is expected to be approved in a board meeting in Singapore today of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the body that co-ordinates website names.

The change is seen primarily as a marketing opportunity for large companies to promote their trademarks online. However, they will need to seize the opportunity, as applications for the new addresses will be accepted by Icann for just 90 days from January. Firms that miss the window could have to wait years for another chance.

Theo Hnarakis, chief executive of the Australian domain name-registration firm Melbourne IT DBS, warned: "As a big brand, you ignore it at your peril." Buying one of the new addresses will cost £115,000, putting them beyond the reach of many smaller businesses and organisations.

Applicants will also be required to demonstrate a legitimate claim to the name they are buying.

Alan Drewsen, executive director of the International Trademark Association, said it could lead to people mistyping website names and encourage so-called "cybersquatters" who register similar addresses to popular sites and rely on such errors to gain visitors. "Once misled, users are harmed in a variety of ways, including being deceived into purchasing dangerous counterfeit products or downloading viruses that steal their personal identifying information or infect their computers," he said.

The first .com site was registered on 15 March 1985 by the US computing company Symbolics. Today 100,000 new sites are registered each day.