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A Multilingual Web Goes Live

Arabic and Cyrillic domain addresses are switched on.

Multilingual Web content has been around for years. Now Web domain names in non-Latin languages are finally arriving–including Arabic addresses launched in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates earlier this month; Cyrillic, launched in Russia last Thursday; and soon Chinese–easing Web access for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

“This is the biggest change in the Internet in 40 years,” says Tina Dam, senior director of international domain names for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which is working on implementing 21 international applications for domain names in 11 languages. “You should have seen the Russian celebration of this, it was so emotional. Suddenly their own language can be used.”

The first complete Cyrillic address is http://президент.рф/, meaning “president.rf” for the office of the president of the Russian federation. While the “http://” part remains in Latin characters, users will not have to type them to reach their destination.

As the change opens up the Internet, it also potentially opens up new security issues, though ICANN says it has tried to anticipate and prevent them. Web addresses formerly based only on 37 characters–A though Z, the 10 numerical digits, and the dash symbol–can now use 90,000 characters from several languages, many of these being Chinese characters. And just as a capital “O” and a zero look similar, various characters within other languages do, too.

Some security experts say that the plethora of new address possibilities could give phishers–scammers who use phony websites to trick people into handing over personal information–ways to create links that appear to be from recognized addresses. As a result, ICANN has already set a rule that any one address must only draw from one language. So while the Russian letters for C, V, and E, for example, are visually indistinguishable from their Latin counterparts, nobody will be able to create a hybrid address to exploit this. E-mail is not fully functional yet with the international domain names, but the technical protocols are being tested.

“One of the biggest principles of the Internet is the uniqueness principle,” Dam says. “Computers will know the difference. But if people can’t see the difference and don’t know what address we are clicking on, we will have a break in the uniqueness principle.”

Strictly speaking, multilanguage domain names have been possible for a decade. But, crucially, this was not true of the top-level domain–such as “.com” and “.gov,” or country names like “.cn” for China or “.ru” for Russia–until recent weeks. Since few people used hybrid domain names in non-Latin languages over the past decade, the real security tests lie ahead.

Meanwhile, the software industry has some catching up to do. One example: it is common in many applications and e-mails for Latin-based Web addresses to automatically become highlighted in blue as a hyperlink. But this doesn’t always happen with the new non-Latin addresses, because commonly used software does not recognize the new multilingual top-level domains for what they are. The major Web browsers, however, have all been updated.

“Nobody thought it was going to happen and didn’t develop software that is capable of handling these new top level domains,” says Veni Markovsi, the Russian and eastern European representative to ICANN.

Nevertheless, the impact will be enormous around the world, he says. “Think what would have happened if the Internet was created in China, and we in the U.S. needed to write the Web address in Chinese. And suddenly the world Internet community says, ‘Well, now you can type your Web address in Latin characters.’ That is the same feeling is for people who don’t know Latin [letters]. Suddenly you will have people who might get online because they are not going to be afraid of the keyboard.”

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