Domain names go international

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the people who manage domain names, yesterday announced that as of Monday 15th internet domain names would go international and allow top-level domains to be written in non Latin scripts.

What this means is that rather than websites being forced to use Roman characters such as .com, .org, .net etc at the end of their domain, countries can now use their native alphabets. This is great news and highlights the importance of recognising the need for people to browse the internet in their native language without resorting to the use of the Roman alphabet. As ICANN themselves have stressed:

“the internationalization of the Internet’s domain name system must be accomplished through standards that are open, non-proprietary, and fully compatible with the Internet’s existing end-to-end model and that preserve globally unique naming in a universally resolvable public name space”.

This takes us a step closer to making the internet a truly global, accessible space although its no small irony that this will turn the browsing experience of those of us who do not read Arabic, Chinese or Tamil on its head.

For example Chinese users write Chinese characters by typing a phonetic version of words in Roman letters called pinyin. Computer software programs then provide a list of associated characters that the user then chooses depending on the meaning of the word – a bit like predictive text on a mobile phone. Without that know how or software a non Chinese speaker isn’t going to be able to type Chinese domain names. Instead people are going to have to rely to using links from search engines and other sites to access websites with localised domain names.

ICANN is moving cautiously and initially running a set of test sites in eleven languages: Arabic, Persian, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Russian, Hindi, Greek, Korean, Yiddish, Japanese, and Tamil. This is partly to ensure that the roll out is both secure and stable. Experts predict that while take up will be slow, ICANN doesn’t expect working addresses in the new languages to be available until the end of next year (2008). This will have a huge impact on the estimated 5 billion people who are not on the Internet and who come up against the barrier of language – just one aspect of the digital divide.

As Paul Hoffman, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based programmer who created the standards behind the internationalized domain names said, the new names “are not for the current users, but for the next billion”.

This has been echoed by an Egyptian Minister who says that in Egypt about seven million people, or 10% of the population, use the internet. Most of these users are well-educated and speak at least some English. To get the next 10% of the population online, however, having domain names in Arabic is critical.

As of Monday you can test the new domains yourself as ICANN will post links on its website to test sites in the 11 non-Roman languages. You’ll be able to test the sites, leave comments about them and create your own versions of web pages that use the non-Roman suffixes.

I love the fact that while the business world becomes ever more English-centric all this work is going on to make the web localised; the towers of babel are have long way to go before they get rebuilt yet!

Update 30 October 2009: After being announced in 2007 the first Internet addresses containing non-Latin characters from start to finish will soon be online after approval of the new Internationalized Domain Name Fast Track Process by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers board. This means we could see internatioalised domain names by mid-2010

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