A Script for Every Surfer

By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is the World Wide Web truly worldwide? Depends on whom you ask.

Since the Internet came into widespread use, those among the 70 percent of the world that doesn't speak English have argued that the Web is inaccessible. So next week the nonprofit group contracted by the U.S. government to run the Internet will begin testing domain names in other alphabets.

On Monday, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will conduct a test to see whether domains written entirely in foreign scripts can work without crashing the Net. For several years, the company has allowed domains that are half in foreign characters, such as [Chinese text].com or [Arabic text].org. For the test, domain names will look like [Korean text].[Korean text].

The long road to this stage, which comes nearly a decade after the technology for creating multilingual domains was invented, has left many in the non-English-speaking world impatient and angry. Questions of political and linguistic sovereignty, alongside accusations of American "digital colonialism," have motivated some countries to create their own Internets, effectively mounting a challenge to the World Wide Web.

Experts say the difficulties of typing in a foreign script have probably held back development of online economies abroad.

"Think of what it would be like if every time you typed out an e-mail address or visited a Web site you had to use Chinese characters or Sanskrit," said Michael Geist, who teaches Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa. "That's exactly like what people in other countries have to do."

Even the hybrid script names that ICANN allows haven't made things much easier. With this model, speakers of Hebrew, Arabic and any other language written from right to left must type half of the URL in one direction and the other half -- the .com, .net or .org postscript -- the opposite way.

Some advocates of internationalizing the Internet have accused ICANN of ignoring the needs of the developing world.

"Almost 10 years ago we went to the CEO of ICANN with the technology to make [multilingual domains] work," said S. Subbiah, co-inventor of the first multilingual domain technology, who estimates that 2 million of the 138 million domains registered worldwide contain non-English characters. "The response was basically, 'I'm too busy. Go learn English.' "

"There's . . . a little anti-American rock-throwing in that description," said Mike Roberts, the first president and chief executive of ICANN. "The engineers thought that trying to do the non-Roman alphabet thing with all this growth would destabilize the Internet and cause crashes."

The politically sensitive business of standardizing languages has also held up the process.

Countries with slightly different versions of the same script have fought over spelling. Debates have also raged over which corporate, sovereign and ethnic interests should control which domains. VeriSign, for example, is the U.S. registry that manages all the domains that end in .com, which represent half of all the domains in the world. Should it also be given control over multilingual domains that end in some translated version of .com? Or should countries have the right to control all domains in their own national languages? What about languages that cross borders, such as Arabic?

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