For the last decade, ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has been talking about opening up the Internet to languages and characters beyond English and the Latin alphabet.
Now ICANN is making good on its talk, formally approving these International Domain Names (IDN) for use as country-code top level domains (ccTLDs).
The move has profound implications for the Internet as it advances the Internet beyond the ASCII character set that has been in use for the last 40 years. While ICANN has been talking about IDNs for some time, the new approval is different from past efforts.
“The big difference is that this is the first time where we will have IDNs at the top level,” Tina Dam, senior director of IDNs at ICANN, told InternetNews.com. “So in addition to .com, .cn, .de and all the other generic and country code domains, now we’re going to have those with any kind of characters in any kind of script you can imagine.”
Dam explained that since 2003, ICANN has support the use of IDNs at the second level, under .com and other TLDs. With the new approval, entire Web site addresses can now be in local characters using IDNs.
According to Dam, the approval of IDNs for ccTLDs comes now because the root DNS (define) servers for the Internet have become capable of handling IDNs. She added that most Web browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari, support IDNs.
Additionally, Dam said that many online applications today already work with IDNs.
“That doesn’t mean that all applications will work — there are millions of apps on the Web today and there is no way of making sure that they all will work,” Dam said.
Users don’t need to worry much yet either way at this point, since the ICANN approval is only the first step in the process, and actual implementation of the IDNs is still months away.
“On Nov. 16, what will happen is ICANN will open the fast-track process so countries can request their country name as a top-level string,” Dam said.
Dam explained that the process will be an open one, but since it is just using the country code name it will require the support of the government whose country code is being requested.
“Then we have to evaluate the requests and as soon that’s done and approved they will launch,” Dam said. We’re looking at something in early 2010 where these new extensions will launch and then be available for domain name registrations. ”
The effort isn’t without challenges, though. One potential hurdle involved in opening up the top-level domain system of the Internet to IDNs is that it could potentially lead to problems: Dam noted that if IDNs become widely available without careful technical and policy consideration, it could lead to user confusion.
“This is a limited round because it is just the country names, and it will be great,” Dam said. “This is not about ‘the Internet will break suddenly’ or something — the stability is clear and this will be fine and it will be great. It will also be good to have the experience with a limited number of top-level domains and see how it goes, and then build from there. “