By nature the Internet is a global phenomenon–or at least it should be. Companies, organizations and individuals have the right to register domain names and set up sites on the world wide web, irrespective of their location, ethnicity or mother tongue. This should mean global citizens have always enjoyed equal access to the Internet and its many benefits–but rarely during the web’s two-decade history has this been the case.

The root of the problem for many potential users has been the fact that, up until recently, the Internet naming system was based exclusively on Latin text. As the Internet is a Western innovation, characters used in such languages formed the basis of code for the Internet, and also the composition of domain names. So essentially, any individual wishing to purchase a domain name–and fully understand the language used–would need to be comfortable with Latin text.

Were the Internet targeted merely at English speaking nations and their former colonies, who by virtue of commercial and political ties speak a Latin-based language, this would not be a problem. But the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body responsible for guarding the web and promoting its global use, has a wider mission statement. And this means making the Internet more accessible to potential stakeholders in other parts of the world.

Billions of people speak non-Latin-based languages, some exclusively. In Russia, Cyrillic is spoken, and in the Middle East, primarily Arabic. In the world’s most populous country, China, a variety of languages are spoken and understood–but none are based on the western 26-letter alphabet. Even European countries stand to benefit, with many languages using characters to accent particular letters–for instance the umlaut in German. Without internationalized domain names (IDNs), it is not possible to use such characters in a website address.

ICANN has recognized the importance of increasing accessibility to the net in such nations, changing its policies on the use of non-Latin languages, and as of 2009 it is possible for many global citizens to use their own alphabet when registering domain names. ICANN is now willing to approve top-level domains (TLD) in different scripts, providing certain criteria can be met by the applicant registry. Through the Fast Track Process adopted in Seoul, South Korea, ICANN welcomes applications from countries or territories wishing to deviate from American Standard Code for Information Interchange. The process involves request preparation by the country or territory, validation of the request to assign a particular string to represent the country as a top-level domain, and submission and processing of a request.

One of the benefits of IDNs will be that more domain names will become available. As more languages are added, an increasing number of web users will be able to drop their existing .com or .net domain name in favor of something which makes much more sense in their own language. This, along with the launch of generic top level domains (gTLD) in the root zone should help even up the balance between web address supply and demand. ICANN has received multiple non-Latin applications for gTLDs, and this will give people in certain countries a different option when registering domain names in the future.

ICANN has been applauded in many quarters for the steps it has taken to broaden the international reach of the Internet. But many stakeholders have raised concerns about IDNs, with security fears prevalent among many critics. Some argue that scams will be easier to perpetrate online using IDNs, because some languages have characters which look very similar to the human eye. For instance, some of the characters in Greek and Cyrillic may appear similar to those in Latin languages, and fraudsters may seek to register websites with letters from more than one language. Cybersquatters could potentially set up fake websites which seemingly have the same domain name as the legitimate version.

Another concern stems from the fact that, in some languages such as Hebrew, it is possible to spell the same word in a number of different ways–all of which are correct. Some individuals may act in bad faith to snap up domain names with slightly different spellings and then seek to divert web users from their intended destination. This is less of an issue if people are aware of the risks, as they have the opportunity to register multiple domains which all divert web users to the same site. But some registrants may be adverse to purchasing more than one domain, and therefore through no fault of their own find themselves at a greater degree of risk.

Without doubt, the launch and implementation of IDNs is a major project for ICANN. And in many people’s view, regardless of the concerns harbored by some, it represents a major stride forward. The world is increasingly globalized, and having a two-tier Internet which meets the needs of some stakeholders more than others risks stifling innovation and growth. By facilitating IDNs and allowing people to operate online in their own language, ICANN is enabling more people in more countries to fully harness the power of the Internet.

Internationalized domain names ‘opening up the global Internet’
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