Internet History: Non-Latin Top-Level Domains Live

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/07/2010 12:00:00 AM
I just wanted to make a quick note of this momentous occasion. While web pages using non-Latin characters have been in existence for quite a while, web addresses using wholly non-Latin characters have not. Again, this situation reflects lock-in effects of the Internet's heritage as a system for guaranteeing continued communication among US defence agencies in the event of a nuclear attack. The Cold War is long gone, but the pervasiveness of top-level domains (TLDs) in Latin characters remains.

Well, this situation may be about to change for the better. Unnoticed to many in the hullabaloo of turbulent markets is that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has finally begun implementing the use of non-Latin characters in TLDs--our .coms, .nets, and .orgs. Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Japanese, Korean characters will soon be in wider use. The ICANN blog has an informative entry as well as a video concerning the time-consuming process of making this much-needed technical change. At any rate, the BBC identifies Arabic sites as the first out of the chute:
Arab nations are leading a "historic" charge to make the world wide web live up to its name. Net regulator Icann has switched on a system that allows full web addresses that contain no Latin characters. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the first countries to have so-called "country codes" written in Arabic scripts.

The move is the first step to allow web addresses in many scripts including Chinese, Thai and Tamil. More than 20 countries have requested approval for international domains from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann). It said the new domains were "available for use now" although it admitted there was still some work to do before they worked correctly for everyone. However, it said these were "mostly formalities".

Icann's senior director for internationalised domain names, Tina Dam, told BBC News that this has been "the most significant day" since the launch of the internet, adding that "it's been a very big day for Icann, more so for the three Arabic countries that were the first to be introduced".

The introduction of the first web names using so-called country code top-level domains (CCTLDs) is the culmination of several years of work by the organisation. Previously, websites could use some non-Latin letters, but the country codes such as .eg for Egypt had to be written in Latin script.

The three new suffixes will allow web addresses to be completely written in native characters. "All three are Arabic script domains, and will enable domain names written fully right-to-left," said Kim Davies of Icann in a blog post. One of the first websites with a full Arabic address is the Egyptian Ministry of Communications.

Egypt's communication and information technology minister Tarek Kamal told the Associated Press that three Egyptian companies were the first to receive registrar licenses for the '.masr' domain, written in Arabic. Mr Kamal described the development as a "milestone in internet history". Masr means Egypt in Arabic.

Some countries, such as China and Thailand, had already introduced workarounds that allow computer users to enter web addresses in their own language. However, these were not internationally approved and do not necessarily work on all computers. Ms Dam explained that the change was "not about shutting non-Arabic or non-Chinese speakers out of the internet...It's about including that large part of our world into the internet today." She said there had previously been a risk the internet might have started to split. "The chances are people would start creating their own internets, where it was only in Chinese, Arabic, Thai or whatever," she said.
ICANN is making a big noise about this change, claiming the availability of non-Latin TLDs is the biggest change to the Internet since its birth some 40 years ago. Certainly, it's a good faith move to make the Internet seem less dominated by American interests via ICANN to permit wider use by those who wish to go online but have limited or no real use for learning English. Call it a welcome leap forward for Internet governance.