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Divided by a common language

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  • Divided by a common language

    Divided by a common language story/0,,1830481,00.html

    The internet is a global revolution in communication - as long as you use
    letters from the western alphabet. Kieren McCarthy on the growing pressure
    for a net that recognises Asian, Arabic and Hindi characters, too

    Thursday July 27, 2006
    The Guardian

    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 that the majority of the world's population does not.

    And he knows that this means the internet is a bewildering and often
    incomprehensible place for the billions of people who live east of Greece.

    Despite everything you may have heard, the global resource we all know as
    the internet is not global at all. Since you are reading this article in
    English you probably won't have noticed, but if your first language was
    Chinese, Arabic, Hindi or Tamil, you would know very different. At most
    websites you visit you will be scrabbling to find a link to a translated
    version in your language, seemingly hidden amid tracts of baffling text.
    Even getting to a website in the first place requires that you master the
    western alphabet - have you ever tried to type ".com" in Chinese letters?

    If you think this situation needn't worry you as an English speaker, think
    again. At a meeting in the House of Commons this month, a number of
    prominent MPs and industry experts listed internationalised domain names
    (IDNs) 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" himself, Vint Cerf, highlighted
    the introduction of IDNs as vital for the future of the net.

    Why the urgency? Because a number of companies - and even countries - that
    are frustrated by years of delays have started offering the internet in
    their own languages by working outside the existing domain name system

    The DNS is the internet's global directory and links particular websites to
    particular computers, so if you type in, say, "", no matter
    where you are on the internet you always end up at the same website. The
    problem is that, at the moment, the DNS works only with western languages.

    The logic of maintaining a single global directory has so far prevented
    people from building and using a different system that includes their
    language, but in the past few years there has been such a build-up in demand
    from millions of new internet users that the previous agreements are
    starting to unravel and risk causing a split in the internet itself.

    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 find that
    you end up at a Russian website all about the world's longest river. Email
    sent to you could end up with someone you don't know in Korea.

    The internet community received a scare in February when China announced 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 that it had made the
    new domains available only within China itself. But the fact that experts
    didn't doubt that China was capable of and willing to separate from the
    global internet was a wake-up call in itself.

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

    But as the world grows smaller, these countries are no longer prepared to
    stick with their add-on systems, accessible only when they are in their own
    country. They want to register a domain name that is accessible across 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 Fattal demonstrated a
    prototype system that worked with the existing internet but also allowed new
    languages to be added to the global system.

    "We have found a way of connecting these islands [of different-language
    networks] and also connecting to the global internet," Fattal explains.
    "With this approach, we can leave the current DNS untouched and safe while
    helping coordinate between other countries in the namespace. In other words,
    now there's a choice."

    In Fattal's presentation, suddenly the internet that we all understand as
    the global internet today was represented as the "ASCII 'English' internet",
    which took its place alongside the Arabic internet, Persian internet,
    Chinese internet, Indian internet, Korean internet and so on.

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

    It was first developed in 1967 and written into the internet's foundations
    by American scientists. It is now so hardwired 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 in order to represent them.

    Linguists have created long tables to represent all the possible
    combinations and permutations of different languages. In the case of
    internet domain names, the address is preceded by "xn--" and then an agreed
    code. For example "www.ré" is represented as "".
    Using this method, it suddenly becomes possible to have internet domain
    names containing foreign characters, and hence foreign language domain

    >From the western perspective this approach was sufficient for the rest of
    the world to use the internet. But the problem is that each of these domains
    still has to use the existing domain system with ".com" or ".net" - suffixes
    that are virtually incomprehensible to non Latin- derived language users.

    The problem was initially overcome by keyboard manufacturers adding buttons
    with ".com" printed on them that did nothing but add ".com" to the end of
    what a user had typed. But as the number of new top-level domains has
    expanded over time, this sticking plaster approach has proved unworkable.
    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
    existing global internet, and it is a not-for-profit company based in
    California and controlled by the US government: Icann.

    Icann was first approached in the year it was created - 1998 - with the aim
    of introducing "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 from a company based in the least
    linguistically diverse area of the world (the US has speakers of 170
    different languages, compared to 364 in Europe and 2,390 in Africa).

    These accusations have only been strengthened by the fact it is American
    companies that own and run the existing 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 being
    given automatic ownership rights to any foreign versions of their domains -
    an argument of such corrupt logic that the very fact it is even discussed is
    a major cause of concern.

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

    As overall coordinator of the domain name system, Icann is caught in a bind
    in which it is desperate to avoid the political repercussions of approving
    or not approving languages, whilst at the same time 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 issues that have to be decided first.
    However, with non- Latin-language networks becoming increasingly advanced,
    China making it clear it is prepared to break away from the internet, MINC
    touting a solution that could bypass its processes altogether and, perhaps
    most crucially, Microsoft deciding to include IDN10 technology in the new
    version of Internet Explorer, out later this year, Icann has been left with
    no choice but to speed up the technical side of internationalised domain
    names in a bid 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
    in one piece.

    The sore reality is that global internet politics mean nothing to users in
    Korea, Syria or Egypt. They simply want to be able to use this remarkable
    medium in their own language, in their own way.