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Old 6th September 2006, 08:32 PM
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Why the internet is at risk of splitting

The internet is a global revolution in communication - as long as you speak English. Kieren McCarthy reports.

ACCORDING to Kaled Fattal, "People say the net works, but it only works for those communities whose native language is Latin-based. The rest of the world is totally isolated." Fattal speaks perfect English but, as chairman and chief executive of the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC), and an Arab, he knows most of the world's population does not.

And he knows this makes the internet a bewildering place for the billions of people who live east of Greece.

If your first language is Chinese, Arabic, Hindi or Tamil, you will be scrabbling to find a link to a translated version in your language on most websites. Even finding a website in the first place requires that you master the Western alphabet - have you ever tried to type ".com" in Chinese?

If you think this situation needn't worry you as an English speaker, think again. At a recent meeting in the British House of Commons, a number of prominent MPs and industry experts named internationalised domain names as one of the internet's most pressing priorities. In June, at a meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) in Marrakech, the "father of the internet", Vinton Cerf, highlighted the introduction of IDNs as vital for the future of the net.
Why the urgency? Because many companies - and even countries - that frustrated by years of delays have started offering the internet in their own languages by working outside the existing domain name system (DNS). The DNS is the internet's global directory and links particular websites to particular computers, so if you type in, for example, "", no matter where you are on the internet you always end up at the same website. The problem is that the DNS only works with Western languages.

The logic of maintaining a single global directory has so far prevented the building of system that includes other languages, but in the past few years there has been such a build-up in demand that the previous agreements are starting to unravel and risk causing the internet to split.

If that were to happen, the web address you type in could suddenly end up at an entirely different website, depending on where in the world you are or which ISP you use. You may want to buy a book from but end up at a Russian website about the world's longest river. Email sent to you in Australia could end up with someone in Korea.

The internet community had a scare in February when China announced that it had created three new top-level domains that were the Chinese equivalents of ".com", ".net" and ".china". If China had decided to break away from the global internet, others would certainly have soon followed. There was a huge wave of relief when the Chinese Government explained it had made the new domains available only in China. But the fact that the experts didn't doubt China was willing to separate from the global internet was a wake-up call in itself.

And it's not only China. Israel has set up its own internal system for domains in Hebrew. Korea has done the same in its language - as have Iran, Syria and Japan.

As the world grows smaller, they are no longer prepared to stick with their add-on systems, accessible only from their own countries. They want to register a domain name accessible throughout the world in the same way that Western domains have been from day one.

At a May meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, however, the Western world finally woke up. MINC's Mr Fattal demonstrated a prototype system that allowed new languages to be added.

"We have found a way of connecting these islands (of different-language networks) and also connecting to the global internet," Mr Fattal says. "We can leave the current DNS untouched and safe while helping co-ordinate between other countries in the name space. In other words, now there's a choice."

To understand how we have reached the point where there is a real risk of internet fragmentation, you need only review the term ASCII. It stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange and is the code devised to enable computers to represent and process all the characters in the English alphabet (a to z, plus 0 to 9 and the various symbols on your keyboard such as % and &).

It was developed in 1967 and written into the internet's foundations by US scientists. It is now so hard-wired into the net that the only way to include other characters such as accents on letters, or Chinese or Arabic script, is to use complex combinations of letters that don't exist in English words.

The problem is that each of these domains must still use the existing domain system with ".com" or ".net" - suffixes that are virtually incomprehensible to non-Latin-derived language users.

People want their own domains in their own language, as was made clear by a recent addition to Japan's own internal domain name system that advertised itself: "At last - the domain name you can spell!"

There is only one organisation that can add new top-level domains to the global internet, a non-profit-making company based in California and controlled by the US government: Icann. Created in 1998, Icann was to have introduced "internationalised domain names" into its system. But it has yet to introduce a single one. Many members of the global internet community have cried foul at the endless delays.
These accusations have only been strengthened by the fact it is US companies that own and run global domains and so have the most to lose from new foreign-language additions. These companies not only have disproportionate influence over Icann but have also been insisting on automatic ownership rights to any foreign versions of their domains - an argument of such corrupt logic that the very fact it is even being discussed is of concern.

On top of that, Asia, Africa and the Middle East are offended by the suggestion they should need to apply to a private US company to have their languages accepted as legitimate on the internet.

As co-ordinator of the domain name system, Icann is caught in a bind that makes it desperate to avoid the political repercussions of approving or not approving languages while maintaining overall charge of the domain name system to prevent everything falling apart.

Icann has successfully delayed the day it has to make such decisions by pointing to the complex technical decisions that must first be made. However, Icann has been left with no choice but to speed up the technical side to keep the net together. Once that technical side is completed, it will take a masterstroke of international political will to keep the internet as we now know it together.

The Guardian

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