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.com, Leslie Walker
Web Addresses Extending Their Global Domain

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By Leslie Walker
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page E01

Europe's new ".eu" Internet domain names go on sale next year. Internet addresses written in Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters, meanwhile, recently went live after years of technical work.

Looming on the horizon is a newer set of Web addresses ending in such suffixes as ".jobs" and ".asia." Perhaps more intriguing , a move is afoot to merge Internet addresses with phone numbers.

Those are but a few of the many events transforming the Internet address system, that behind-the-scenes technology for translating human-friendly words known as domain names into computer-friendly numbers that locate Web sites. Add up the changes, and they amount to an internationalization of a network long dominated by businesses and people in the United States.

Much has changed since the dot-com boom ended abruptly in the stock market wipeout of 2000. But one aspect of the Internet that has remained constant is growth in Internet traffic, which continued with nary a hiccup even as millions of Web sites were dying.

One way to measure Internet activity is by counting the requests for looking up Web locations in the Internet's master address books, or domain registries. VeriSign Inc., which manages all addresses ending in ".com" and ".net," says it is processing nearly seven times as many ".com" and ".net" queries today as it did a few years ago -- an average of 11 billion a day, compared with 1.7 billion in 2000. Already, Internet address queries are running about three times the number of phone calls made daily in the United States.

Not only is online activity up; so, too, are sales of new Internet addresses, according to a report released last week by VeriSign. Some 4.7 million new domain names were sold in the first quarter of this year, up 21 percent over last year and the largest quarterly volume ever. Total registered Internet addresses have reached 63 million, another all-time high.

As if anyone needed more evidence of how deeply the Internet is entwining itself into society, VeriSign also reported that more domain names are attached to live Web sites or e-mail accounts today -- some 72 percent of all registered names, up from 55 percent in December 2002, when many people were still buying monikers for speculative purposes.

The usefulness of Internet addresses could expand even more if various experiments pan out. Airlines, for example, are exploring how they might let people type such strings as "1876.aero" into their Web browsers and get status reports for individual flight numbers. Also in the works is an object-naming system that would link radio-frequency identification tags in retail and manufacturing goods to Internet addresses. The idea is to track items in stores, manufacturing plants and other locations via the Internet. An addressing system for physical objects -- some call it "the Internet of things" -- could vastly expand usage of the domain system.

Yet the overarching trend affecting Internet addresses today is hyper-growth outside the United States -- and outside the ".com" registry. In the early days of the World Wide Web, Americans and their passion for ".com" names so dominated the fledgling communication network that many countries plugging into the Internet later had a hard time obtaining useful ".com" names. Partly for that reason, 90 percent of all domain names registered in Germany, for example, now end in ".de," a code specific to that country. The domain name system has more than 200 such country codes, although the ".us" assigned to the United States has scant usage compared with codes for other countries.

While ".com" still claims the largest share, 45 percent of all Internet addresses, other suffixes are catching on. Germany's ".de" has grown to become the second biggest, accounting for 12 percent of all domain names. United Kingdom's ".uk" is third, with 8 percent. Today, only 31 percent of all names are registered in the United States.

It should surprise no one that the Internet address system is starting to shed its American slant, considering North America no longer has the world's largest Internet population. The Asia-Pacific region, with 223 million people online, has surpassed North America's 175 million users and Europe's 173 million, VeriSign said.

Meanwhile, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the global Internet address system, is weighing proposals to create 10 new specialty suffixes, including ".tel," ".mail," ".xxx," ".jobs" and ".asia." The idea is controversial, because some think the Internet's system for directing traffic is already strained and the last thing it needs is more complexity.

The reality is that much work lies ahead to truly internationalize the Internet. While domain names in Japanese and Chinese recently went on sale, lots of Internet software still can't recognize those languages. And English still disproportionately dominates Web content -- some 68 percent of all online content is written in a language that is primary for only 36 percent of Internet users. The world's most popular Web sites are making strides translating their sites into different languages, but it's a technically challenging, time-consuming process.

ICANN, meanwhile, has come under fire from groups in other countries who see it as too U.S.-centric and slow to implement needed changes. Based in Marina del Ray, Calif., ICANN put some legal distance between itself and the U.S. government last fall and has since been trying to become more global by appointing committees and opening regional offices around the world.

A big risk that globalization poses for the Internet is the possibility it might fracture what has been an open, standardized architecture into increasingly closed universes that vary slightly based on geography and culture. But with any luck, the world's many regional bodies and governments will sidestep such a disastrous route by learning to collaborate on what is increasingly becoming one of the world's most precious -- and shared -- resources.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.


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