On April 22, 1889, tens of thousands of people lined up at the borders of Oklahoma on horses, wagons and trains, preparing to race for the rights to their very own home on the range.

Their chaotic dash across the plains was the most dramatic land rush in recorded history. Until next year, that is, when millions of Net users will try to stake their claim on brand new domain names.

The nonprofit group that governs Web addresses is planning to open up at least a few more so-called top-level domains the turf currently dominated by dot-com. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is set to discuss the proposal during its July meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

ICANN has only started asking the many questions raised by its proposal, including the sort of names to be created and the rules that will apply to owning them. But it's principal challenge will be avoiding the sort of fraud, mismanagement and chaos that characterized the real-world land rush.

Domain names are those now-familiar phrases that direct your Web browser to a particular site, such as "www.example.com." Most of them end in dot-com because that designation was originally set aside for commercial enterprises. But general interest sites may also register names ending in dot-net, dot-org or a few two-letter codes originally assigned to countries.

What's in a domain name?

Why do we need new top-level domains?

We don't really. The Net will function just fine if we stick with the current assortment of dot-whatevers.

But anyone who's tried to register a new domain name lately knows that most of the catchy ones have been taken. If your dream of an online business involves a name like slimytoad.com, you might be in luck. Otherwise, you'll sympathize with thousands of entrepreneurs looking for some new name-related turf to conquer.

Creating new top-level domains also might make it easier for Web surfers to find what they're looking for. If new domains were reserved for certain sorts of businesses or services such as dot-md for doctors or dot-movie for film-related sites people might be able to guess the address they seek instead of heading for a search engine.

Some have proposed creating a dot-xxx or dot-sex domain for sexually explicit sites, but that idea might create more problems than it solves. Could pornographers be forced to abandon their current dot-com addresses for sites within these new domains? And even if courts found this to be a reasonable restriction of speech, where would they draw the line between porn, erotica and provocative art?

Questions like these are among the many ICANN is asking the public to help answer at its Web site (www.icann.org). While the group has been accused in the past of rushing past issues raised by its membership structure and funding mechanisms, it has taken a wise and patient approach to the creation of new top-level domains.

Doling out the names

Of course, anyone would pause before walking onto hot coals. And when ICANN finally does take some steps later this year, you're bound to hear some screaming.

What, for example, will be done to protect the rights of copyright holders or, for that matter, the right to make fair use of copyrights? Can an animal rights group register "McDonalds.store" and post a parody of the company's official site? Or will such companies be given first dibs on their names?

ICANN also must settle on real estate agents for these bountiful new lands. It says it will do this based in part on prospective registrars' suggestions for addressing the largest question raised by this process: How will the best names be doled out?

Will they hold lotteries, auction them off to the highest bidder or simply open the servers at a certain time, allowing everyone on the Net a shot at getting in first?

And when the masses arrive, will they find the best addresses have been snatched up by well-connected insiders?

That's what happened in 1889, when deputy U.S. marshals staked the best claims before anyone else was allowed into Oklahoma territory. Residents of that state are still nicknamed "sooners" in memory of those who cheated their way in.

ICANN would do well to save the Web's newest domains from a similar fate.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.