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A View from Erika Jonietz

Internet Domain Names Go International

Non-Latin Internet domain names could be up by mid-2010.

  • October 27, 2009

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is finalizing plans to introduce domain names that use non-Roman (or Latin) characters–that is, Internet users in countries such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia will soon be able to enter Web addresses in Asian, Cyrillic, Arabic, or other scripts. According to a BBC story:

“Of the 1.6 billion internet users today worldwide, more than half use languages that have scripts that are not Latin-based,” said Rod Beckstrom at the opening of Icann’s conference in Seoul, South Korea.

“So this change is very much necessary for not only half the world’s internet users today but more than half, probably, of the future users as the internet continues to spread.”

The news comes after years of controversy about the Internet’s de facto requirement of basic literacy in English, which advocates have argued severely limits its utility for the millions of people barely literate in local dialects in countries such as India.

ICANN initially approved plans for Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) in June 2008, but working out the technology behind it has proved extremely difficult. In effect, Internet engineers had to create an entirely new “translation system” for the Domain Name System, which transforms domain names such as “technologyreview.com” into numerical IP addresses. Enabling the system to recognize and translate an array of non-Latin characters into IP addresses as well was a challenge. Though workarounds have existed in some Asian countries, they were not internationally approved and didn’t necessarily work on all computers or in all Web browsers.

ICANN representatives say that the new system, which currently supports 16 different non-Roman scripts, has been thoroughly tested and is ready to go. If the ICANN board gives final approval next week, the agency could begin accepting applications for internationalized domain names as early as November 16, and the first websites using them could be up by the middle of next year.

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