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?

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