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Old 8th March 2006, 04:47 PM
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Splitting the root?

Times Online
March 08, 2006

Splitting the root

In a nightmare vision worthy of a collapsing Tower of Babel, Gervase Markham suggests that the internet might soon fracture into several pieces

Imagine that, instead of being created by Tim Berners-Lee, an Englishman working at CERN in Switzerland, the internet had been invented by Li Tsim, a Chinese researcher at Tsinghua university in Beijing.

Thus, the first web pages were all in Mandarin, and URLs were made up of Chinese characters. So today, every time you see a web address on an advertising hoarding, you have to spend five minutes carefully copying it down and then working out how to type it into your computer.

If this sounds like a nightmare, you can imagine how important it is to citizens of countries where the simple Latin alphabet is not used for them to surf the web using URLs in their own languages.

However, there is an unfortunate technical barrier. Until recently, the Domain Name System (DNS), which translates the names humans use into the numerical addresses computers use, only worked with unaccented Latin letters, numbers and the hyphen. So even something as simple as www.café.fr was not a valid domain name. Technical standards have been developed to fix this problem, at least from a user’s point of view, and Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) are now becoming a more commonplace part of domain names.

That is, at least, until you reach the end. The top level (the "root"; one quirk of computer scientists is that they like their trees upside down) of the DNS is the part which defines what endings are allowed – ".com", ".uk", ".cn" or ".museum". The master file defining these has historically resided with the Internet Consortium for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN), and ultimately with the United States Government, which has publically stated that it has no intention of giving up its right to veto changes.

Currently, none of the existing top-level names use anything other than Latin letters, and all countries are represented solely by a two-Latin-letter country code. So a Mexican can have www.olé.mx, but not www.olé.méxico. This is not such an issue for the Mexicans, but is intensely irritating to the Chinese, who would like their domain names to be entirely in Chinese characters. Also united in unhappiness are Arabs, Israelis and other right-to-left language speakers, the parts of whose domain names appear in the wrong order.

So far, this seems like a simple technical problem, uninteresting to the world at large. However, unimpressed with the speed at which it is appearing to be fixed, the Chinese may be on the verge of taking a momentous action which would change the Internet as we know it. In effect, they are looking at declaring independence – taking their own copy of the root endings list, adding some extra endings to it (the equivalents of ".china", ".company" and ".network" in Chinese) and telling all Chinese Internet Service Providers to use their copy of the file instead of the ICANN copy everyone else is using.

The upshot of that would be the existence of sections of the internet that only some users can see. The website for any domain ending in one of their new endings would be visible inside China, but not outside. In effect, we would no longer have one internet, but multiple "internets". It would be the end of universal connectivity. A sort of Babel 2.0.

Even that is not a disaster – if everyone else bowed to the pressure and merged in the changes from the Chinese file into their copy. But once there is no longer a single point of authority for defining changes, what happens when two competing groups add the same name to their versions, and start providing domains to different people? So if two groups set up ".newspaper", www.times.newspaper could take you to two different places, depending on whether you were surfing the web from the UK or the US.

The fragmentation of the internet into an array of uncommunicative groups is not far from happening. ICANN needs to get its act together before it does. They must credibly represent the interests and meet the needs of the entire community worldwide. And the US Government needs to publically and irrevocably let go of the toy, before it breaks and both sides end up in tears

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Old 8th March 2006, 04:55 PM
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Re: Splitting the root?

Yeah, I posted this in the news."the-beast-unleashed%21"-a.html#post9334

Not to worry. China is working with Icann currently and they are getting this figured out. There will be no root splitting as China has already ruled that out in a previous article but this article does do well in describing the importance of IDNs!
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