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A Script for Every Surfer
Even the technical tests have caused political flare-ups.
Next week's experiments use the domain name "example.test" translated into 11 languages. A previous model, however, used "hippopotamus" instead of "test." These plans went awry when an Israeli registrar realized the Hebrew word ICANN thought meant "hippopotamus" was an expletive and threatened to involve the Israeli government.
Some countries have taken matters into their own hands.
At least a dozen countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, have created their own domains in different alphabets and their own Internets to support these domains. A Russian newspaper article last July reported that President Vladimir Putin was commissioning the creation of a Cyrillic Internet. Users of Russia's Internet, like current users of China's and Saudi Arabia's, could surf the Web without going through U.S.-controlled ICANN servers.
"We have been told so many times it will be next year and next year and next year that ICANN will make" multilingual domains work, said Alexei Sozonov, chief executive of Regtime, a Russian domain registrar. "So countries now have their own deployments."
Without coordination, some experts say, these new networks will increasingly fragment and destabilize the Internet.
"The longer it takes for ICANN to introduce these domain names, the greater the amount of chaos there'll be," said Ram Mohan, chief technology officer at Afilias and the chair of ICANN's working group on multilingual domains and Internet stability.
Others say patching these countries' Internets together into a "federation" of Internets could preserve global interconnectivity.
"I don't think the sky is falling," said Milton L. Mueller, professor of information studies at Syracuse and a partner at the Internet Governance Project, a global Internet policy think tank. "There are strong economic incentives to maintain compatibility."
These economic incentives, however, may be outweighed by political interests. Independent Internets could, for example, give countries greater censorship power.
"If the Chinese can say you can't post the word 'democracy' in the title of a blog entry, then good luck registering 'democracy.com' in Chinese," said John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Still, one country's censorship could be another's peacekeeping.
"There should be some restrictions on domain names that are culturally sensitive," said Yoav Keren, chief executive of Israeli domain registrar Domain The Net, which does not allow registrations of Nazism sites.
"Having a domain that insults a whole community for all eternity is not something you want," he said. "Look what happened with the Danish cartoons that insulted Muslims."
Security experts say coordination of multilingual domains is also important to protect consumers. The similarity of many language scripts makes Web users vulnerable to fraud. Eric Johanson, a security engineer, demonstrated this threat in 2005 with the creation of a paypal.com look-alike site where the first Latin letter 'a' was replaced with a Cyrillic letter 'a.' The two URLs look identical.
To prevent similar spoofing attacks, China, Korea and Japan recently developed standards for their overlapping scripts. Today, if you register a domain in Japanese kanji, for example, a similar version of the domain in Chinese characters is usually given, too.
"The Chinese and the Japanese were screaming and throwing shoes at each other at their first meeting," Subbiah said. "Then, when they got it right, they became the role model for how this should work."