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Internationalized Domain Names: The Babelization Factor

As current statistics now clearly indicate, two-thirds of the estimated 560 million people online are non-English speakers. As one would expect, in the upcoming ICANN Shanghai Meeting of October 28, 2002, IDNs (Internationalized Domain Names, also known as Multilingual Domain Names), are one of the main topics of discussion. This global affair is also fueling the growing list of Internationalized Domain Name Certified Registrars that offer domain names in many other non-English characters with .com, .net, and .org.

Internet browsers and email clients supporting the use of IDNs is a whole different story. Several organizations are actively trying to solve the lack of synergy that currently exists within IDNs through standard protocols. These organizations include the Multilingual International Names Consortium (MINC), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and the Internationalized Domain Name Working Group (IDN WG) of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), where a tremendous amount of work has been done to date. I have also been keeping an eye on the developments in VeriSign’s Global Registry Services. Another center where IDN activities are gaining momentum is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), not only because it is the oldest organization in the industry, but also because of the amazing possibilities and complications that ENUM services will bring into the mix.

What is most interesting is a look at solutions and approaches offered by these organizations involved with IDNs.

IDN WG is in the final stage of specifying a document for the standardization of IDNs, from which I quote:

“This document defines internationalized domain names (IDNs) and a mechanism called IDNA for handling them in a standard fashion. IDNs use characters drawn from a large repertoire (Unicode), but IDNA allows the non-ASCII characters to be represented using only the ASCII characters already allowed in so-called host names today. This backward-compatible representation is required in existing protocols like DNS, so that IDNs can be introduced with no changes to the existing infrastructure. IDNA is only meant for processing domain names, not free text.”

In other words, IDNA works by allowing applications to use certain ASCII name labels (beginning with a special prefix) to represent non-ASCII name labels. IDNA allows the graceful introduction of IDNs not only by avoiding upgrades to existing DNS infrastructure (servers, caches, stub resolvers), but also by allowing some rudimentary use of IDNs in applications by using the ASCII representation of the non-ASCII name labels.

While such names are very non-user-friendly to read and type, and hence are not suitable for user input, they do help in user activities such as replying to emails and clicking on hyperlinked URLs. In order to allow user-friendly input and output of the IDNs, the applications need to be modified to conform to IDNA specification. IDNA requires that implementations process input strings with Nameprep , which is a profile of Stringprep, and then with Punycode. Implementations of IDNA must fully implement Nameprepand Punycode; neither Nameprep nor Punycode is optional.

The obvious achievement here is that this supposed solution is entirely based on the existing infrastructure, though at a later stage it can be a higher layer of the IPv6. Without a doubt, once adopted, this will be a great relief to the Internet community as it stands today, but the long-term effect remains to be seen.

VeriSign has developed two software solutions concerning IDNs. The first is i-Nav, which provides the ability to enter domain names and web addresses in a native language into the web browser address bar. It is specifically designed to work with MS Internet Explorer and domain names that have been registered with VeriSign’s Global Registry Services. In addition, i-Nav enables URLs to be clicked within web pages that display domain names in a native language, as well as allowing access to domain names from the ‘Favorites’ folder. i-Nav is compatible with Windows 98, ME, NT, 2000, and XP, and runs with Internet Explorer 5.0 and above.

The second one is i-NavMail, an email upgrade for MS Outlook users that allows the sending and receiving of emails using IDNs. VeriSign’s solution can be seen as a practical and profit-oriented approach. However, this Microsoft-dependent structure may not be the wisest long-term approach—perhaps a consultation with RealNames, shut down due to Microsoft’s refusal to renew their contract, would come in handy.

ITU is one of the major players and, in my opinion, its role with regard to IDNs will grow even larger. To emphasize this matter, I take the liberty of quoting ITU from a recent press release.

“The Working Group of the Plenary approved a resolution on the management of internationalized multilingual domain names. This resolution aims at helping promote the role of Member States in the internationalization of domain names and addresses of their respective languages. This will be increasingly important in the coming years as a majority of Internet users is expected to prefer to conduct online activities in their own language. It is also important because the current Domain Names System (DNS) mapping does not reflect the growing language needs of all. The resolution stresses that the registration and allocation of Internet domain names and addresses should reflect the geographical and functional nature of the Internet with an equitable balance of interests of all stakeholders. It also emphasizes that the non-discriminatory access to Internet domain names and addresses, and more generally to the Internet, should be available to all citizens and that the management of Internet Domain Names and addresses is of concern to both governments and the private sector. It also reiterates the need to fully maintain country code numbering plans and addresses as in ITU-T recommendation E.164 which defines the international public telecommunication numbering plan. Under this resolution, ITU will be providing assistance to its Member States to promote the use of their languages for domain names and addresses and will cooperate with the World Intellectual Property Organization whose role includes protection against misuse of intellectual property rights in the use of countries’ languages for domain names and addresses.”

There seems to be an explicitly expressed appetite, which intends to leverage on “the need to fully maintain country code numbering plans and addresses as in ITU-T recommendation E.164 which defines the international public telecommunication numbering plan.” This is the condition for the new ENUM revolution to be successful!

By now you may be asking what babelization is and where it fits into IDNs. There is a story in the Bible about the Tower of Babel in an ancient city now thought to be Babylon. In the story, skilled masters from all over the world decided to build a tower that reached heaven. Having learned of their plan, God became angry and mixed the languages of the builders in such a way that they could not understand each other anymore. The tower collapsed!

Perhaps “babelization” is a natural state of humankind when we try to reach too high. But perhaps it is not so frightening after all.

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