June 24, 2008

How Global Should the Internet Be?

Lest you think a U.N. meeting to discuss the future of the Internet would be a ponderous, low-key affair, consider this remarkable tale. Back in 2003, when the U.N. held just such an event in Geneva, the delegates unexpectedly decided to close the meeting to nongovernmental officials and to eject a handful of attendees. One of them was Paul Twomey -- president of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names & Numbers [ICANN], a private, nonprofit company that oversees technical aspects of the Internet's address system -- who was escorted by guards to the exit.

The surprising turn of events underscored the simmering resentment felt by many nations, especially in the developing world, over the governance of the Internet. They had been vexed for years about what they perceived as a lack of voice in how the Net was run -- and by the continued U.S. ownership of key Internet resources. Some said that excluding ICANN, which works under contract to the U.S. government, was a fitting lesson in powerlessness for an organization that had enjoyed sweeping control since its founding in 1998.

Under Twomey's leadership, ICANN has spent the past five years trying to address the issues raised in that meeting. But making the Internet more global is proving far more difficult than anyone could have imagined, say some of the 1,900 government representatives and other stakeholders attending an ICANN conference in Paris, which runs June 23-26.

Limitless Domain Names?

A key issue on the agenda is finding a way for ICANN to extract itself finally from oversight by the U.S. Commerce Dept., a move that even some of the U.S.'s closest allies, including Canada and Italy, now support. A contract with the U.S. governmental agency expires in 2009, so a roadmap is now being hammered out for a more independent future. "What we are seeking is to strengthen our accountability to our whole community," says Twomey.

Also on the agenda is the possibility of introducing an unlimited number of new top-level domains, the technical term for the suffixes such as .com or .net tacked on to the ends of Internet addresses. One proposal would lift all restrictions, opening the way for domains such as .love or .hate. If ICANN approves the plan, Twomey says, the impact on the Net could be akin to what happened when TV went from a few channels to hundreds.

But the thorniest problem by far on the Paris agenda is how to introduce domain names in non-Roman scripts. It is a hot-button issue tied to cultural identity and politics, but also of critical importance in bridging the digital divide. In India, for instance, there "are more than 100 million people who read English but a billion who don't," Twomey says.

A World of Different Alphabets

If that country and others are to reach their goals of getting people in the world's remotest villages to use the Net, it's necessary to give Web sites names in scripts other than Roman, he says. To that end, ICANN is trying, during the meeting in Paris, to finalize a way to fast-track the introduction of domain names using a variety of different alphabets.

The move is being applauded by high government officials the world over. "The rapid introduction of domain names in non-Latin characters is becoming a moral imperative as well as a political necessity," said Eric Besson, France's minister in charge of development of a digital economy, during June 23 opening remarks at the Paris ICANN conference. "It is a major symbolic issue," Besson added, that calls into question "the very credibility of ICANN as a truly global agency."

Trouble is, though ICANN thinks it has finally solved technical difficulties associated with routing Internet traffic when new language scripts are added, it now finds itself dealing with nightmarish political and cultural issues.

The Difficulties Multiply

On June 11, for instance, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly called for Russia to be assigned an Internet domain in the Cyrillic script. The Kremlin is concerned that Russian, once the main language throughout the Soviet Union, is losing ground to local languages and English.

Meeting Medvedev's demand isn't easy, though. The country abbreviation currently used to route traffic to Russia in Roman script is ".ru." The Cyrillic equivalent resembles the Roman characters "py," which is the country code for Paraguay. To get around the problem, Russia might instead have to be assigned the Cyrillic equivalent of "RF," short for Russian Federation, which includes a letter that has no equivalent in Latin alphabets, says Michael Yakushev, a board member of the coordinating body overseeing Russia's country domain name.

The issues don't end there. All countries using Cyrillic, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, and a half-dozen Central Asian republics, must agree on how the script will be officially presented on the Internet to prevent confusion and error. Ditto for Arabic. About 600 million people use Arabic script, but only about 35% of them speak Arabic; the rest, says Siavash Shahshahani, a Tehran-based member of the body overseeing Arabic script issues, use Arabic script to represent languages such as Farsi, Urdu, and Sindhi. Differences in the way certain numbers and letters are written could prevent people from gaining access to global sites or even give rise to fraud, he says.

Accent on the Official Languages

Another vexing issue is whether there should be a limit on the number of new local-script domain names a country can obtain. India, for example, has more than 20 official languages and thus could obtain 20 local-script domains. Other countries with only one official language but multiple dialects or significant linguistic minorities complain they shouldn't be limited to a single domain.

Then there's the nagging question of accents, which are key to many languages but so far aren't allowed in domain names. That presents its own problems. Belgium, for instance, has three official languages, and while the spelling of its name in French and German doesn't require accents, the Dutch spelling does. If ICANN put a priority on adding support for accents, that could leave some parts of Belgium in the slow lane. So for now, the group says it will resolve the problem by fast-tracking only development of non-Roman scripts.

ICANN also introduced a rule that limits countries to applying only for scripts tied to their official languages. As a result, Australia can't ask to obtain the equivalent of .au in Chinese because Chinese isn't an official language there. But what about minority communities? Russia's Yakushev, for instance, thinks Russians living in the U.S. should be allowed to lobby for a Cyrillic character alternative for "United States," which would be used in addition to the Roman character abbreviation [.us] currently in use.

All these complex issues will take time to sort through, and every technical solution needs to be matched with social and political support. Some worry already that the rise of local-language domain names will lead to increased fragmentation of the Internet, or even to greater governmental control by repressive regimes, which could restrict access by limiting the languages supported in domain names.

China Introduces Interim System

"It's clearly going to be a mess," says Russia's Yakushev. But he and others at the Paris meeting passionately believe the transition is nonetheless essential to truly globalize the Net. "Imagine for a moment how inconvenient it would be if the Internet had been invented in China and each time you typed in an address you had to use Chinese characters," says Edmon Chung, the Hong Kong-based chief executive of the generic top-level domain .asia.

China already has taken the first steps toward a multilingual domain name system. It resolved Chinese script issues with Taiwan and Hong Kong and introduced an interim system that allows a Chinese-character domain name to be typed into computers. The Roman characters .cn are then automatically added for routing purposes. It's time, says Chung, for the real thing to be implemented in China -- and for the rest of the world to follow suit with other scripts.

That will be easier said than done. "We are an organization that has a very narrow technical function," says Paul Levins, ICANN's executive officer and vice-president for corporate affairs. "Yet we often find ourselves in the middle of sensitive issues that are often difficult to predict." At least this time nobody is getting thrown out of the meeting.