The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the world-wide web's regulator, voted unanimously to relax the so far strict rules on "top-level" domain names. The decision means that in future companies could turn brand names into web addresses, while individuals could use their names.
A second proposal, to introduce domain names written in Asian, Arabic or other scripts was also accepted.
"We are opening up a whole new world and I think this cannot be underestimated," said ICANN member Roberto Gaetano after the decision was made.
The organisation said it had already been contacted about setting up domain names in the Cyrillic script, which is used in Russia and other Eastern European countries.
"This is a huge step forward in the development of the internet. It will unblock something that has prevented a lot of people getting online," said Emily Taylor, director of legal affairs and policy at Nominet, the national registry for .uk domain names.
"At the moment, there are one-and-a-half billion people online and four-and-a-half billion people for whom the Roman script just means nothing."
Dr. Paul Twomey, chief executive of ICANN, described passing the resolution as "a historic moment".
His organisation has been working towards opening up the 25-year-old net addresses for nearly six years. It was one of its founding goals in 1998.
To get around the restrictions, some companies have used the current system to their own ends. For example, the small Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu has leased the use of its national signature .tv to numerous television companies from many different countries.
Under the new plans, domain names can be based on any string of letters, and in any script.
Individuals will be able to register a domain based on their own name, for example, as long as they can show a business plan and "technical capacity". Companies will be able to secure domain names based on their intellectual property. The result could be thousands or even millions of new addresses.
"The most likely new top level domains to be pushed into the ICANN process are those that have been under development for some time now, for example the geo-domains such as .cym for Wales, .sco for Scotland, .ldn for London, .nyc for New York and so on," said Marcus Eggensperger of Lycos Webhosting.
However, the costs of setting up such a new domain - at least initially - will be quite high.
"We expect that the fee will be in the low six figure dollar amounts," said Dr. Paul Twomey.
ICANN has already spent close to $ 10 million on the proposals - set to rise to $ 20 million - and needs to recoup their expenses.
"The costs of developing and implementing this policy will be borne by the applicants," Dr. Twomey explained. "But we are certainly not setting this up for profit."
Many experts have pointed out that because of the scale of the plan, its introduction and effect will have to be monitored closely.
"I am concerned about spending our domain name inheritance for future users," said Dave Wodelet, a member of the ICANN board.
"I certainly don't want future generations to look back at us with disdain for not being good stewards of this limited resource."
Many businesses have pointed out that the new system could be very costly, and perhaps even too expensive.
"For a major pharmaceutical business, the cost of registering all of their trademarks when a new procuct is released runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds."
Others point out that some generic domain names - such as .news or .sport - could become subject to contention and a bidding war.
ICANN has said that it was "aware of all of these concerns" and that it had "considered them very carefully".
It will implement an arbitration process to oversee disputes and has said that if all else fails, a domain name would "go to the highest bidder" in an auction.
"On balance, the board feels that adopting this resolution is in the best interests of the internet and the public at large," said ICANN board member Dennis Jennings.
The process of introducing the new system will start in 2009, with the first of the new domain websites possibly coming online in the final quarter of next year.The Emerald Islander