In October of 2009, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, began processing requests for domain names in non-Latin scripts such as Arabic.
Since their creation in the 1980s, domain names have been limited to the 26 characters in the Latin alphabet used in English — A-Z — as well as 10 numerals and the hyphen. Technical tricks have been used to allow portions of the Internet address to use other scripts, but until now, the suffix had to use those 37 characters.
This meant that Internet users with little or no knowledge of English still had to type in Latin characters to access web pages in Chinese or Arabic. Although search engines can sometimes help users reach those sites, companies still need to include Latin characters on billboards and other advertisements.
Now, ICANN is allowing those same technical tricks to apply to the suffix as well, allowing the Internet to be truly multilingual.
Many of the estimated 1.5 billion people online use languages such as Chinese, Thai, Arabic and Japanese, which have writing systems entirely different from English, French, German, Indonesian, Swahili and others that use Latin characters.
There will be several restrictions at first. Countries can only request one suffix for each of their official languages, and the suffix must somehow reflect the name of the country or its abbreviation. Non-Latin versions of “.com” and “.org” won’t be permitted for at least a few more years as the ICANN considers broader policy questions such as whether the incumbent operator of “.com” should automatically get a Chinese version, or whether that more properly goes to China, as its government insists.
ICANN is also initially prohibiting Latin suffixes that go beyond the 37 already-permitted characters. That means suffixes won’t be able to include tildes, accent marks and other special characters.
And software developers still have to make sure their applications work with the non-Latin scripts. Major Web browsers already support them, but not all e-mail programs do.
Although the move will reflect linguistic and cultural diversity, Mr. Guo said, “for some users it might even be easier to type domains in Latin alphabets than Chinese characters.”
China has already set up its own “.com” in Chinese within its borders, using techniques that aren’t compatible with Internet systems around the world.
It is among a handful of countries that has pushed hardest for official non-Latin suffixes and could be one of the first to make one available, said Tina Dam, the ICANN senior director for internationalized domain names. The other countries, she said, are Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.— AP
But for now, at least, registration is limited to official government domains, sparking fears of increased censorship and online "ghettoization."
Egypt, which was among the first Arab countries to apply for a domain names with Arabic letters, is ranked by Global Voices as one of the most repressive countries for bloggers.
Most experts agree that multilingual domain names will not enhance the government's ability to block specific websites.
But once Egypt, for example, is granted its own domain name, local sites that wish to register with the official domain must approach the government authority, which could reject an application from say, an opposition newspaper.
"It's likely that Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain will strictly limit which sites can be registered in their domain," Jillian York, the project coordinator of the OpenNet Initiative at Harvard University, wrote in an e-mail to The Times.
"Other countries, such as Libya, ... could see it as a financial opportunity," she added.
The popular URL shortening sites bit.ly and ow.ly are registered in Libya.
York went on to say that many Arabic speakers may choose to register their site with a different Arab country that may have looser restrictions. The greater concern for many is how businesses and institutions will maintain control over their brand without owning the phonetic or translated equivalent website in all languages.
More questions are likely to arise as the mushrooming of languages besides English on the Internet changes the very nature of the global network (Google’s Eric Schmidt recently predicted that Chinese will dominate the Web within five years). Arabic is currently the fastest-growing language online, with about 300 million native Arabic-speakers worldwide. Moreover, the huge deficit in online content in Arabic compared with the number of Arabs online, between 3% and 5% of all Internet users, suggestsArabic content will grow exponentially in the next few years.
Whether this ultimately makes the Internet a more or less inclusive place is being debated. Critics worry that the introduction of domains in non-Latin scripts will create walls between online communities where none existed before, making it harder for people from around the world to communicate.
But innovations in translation and search technology could, in fact, make those barriers more permeable. Already, applications like Google Translate allow non-Arabic speakers to scan headlines from the Arabic press.
“Bridges are going to be crossed,” said Samih Toukan, a Web entrepreneur and the founder of the Arabic portal Maktoob, which was acquired by Yahoo earlier this year.
“There will still remain a gap because people tend to gather in communities on the Internet, but the gap will be smaller.”