Nominet consults on international domain names

Should we be able to register domain names with non-standard characters, such as café.co.uk?

Nominet, the organisation that runs the .co.uk domain, wants to know what you think about internationalised domain names containing foreign characters.

On Monday Nominet launched a consultation paper to canvass opinion on expanding the domain name system beyond the limits imposed when the Internet was designed "mostly by English speakers".

Domain names within the .co.uk domain are currently limited to 37 core symbols -- the letters A-Z, the ten digits and the hyphen. This excludes many characters from Eastern European alphabets and all non-Latin alphabets such as Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic, as well as other forms of writing such as Chinese.

If the current proposal, called Internationalising Domain Names in Applications (IDNA) is adopted by Nominet, then words containing foreign characters could be used to register names under the .co.uk domain. Some other domain registries already used IDNA, including .info and .jp, already support IDNA.

IDNA uses combinations of the 37 core symbols to create the new symbols. Every domain name using the new system begins with the characters "xn--"; for instance, the domain name www.café .co.uk would be represented as www.xn--caf-fsa.co.uk.

Nominet's rules currently prevent any domain name registration beginning with "xn--". In theory, all Nominet needs to do to allow IDNA is change this rule, but in practice there are serious issues that need to be considered, said the organisation.

In its consultation paper, Nominet said that now the user base of the Internet is truly international, "it is widely believed that there is a need for domain names to go beyond these 37 characters… Even other Western European languages make use of characters other than the 37 core symbols... The nature of the UK is such that many citizens speak and write in these non-English languages in their everyday life."

Nominet said it would be "naïve to dismiss this as a 'minority' or 'foreign' problem – as there are words in both English and Welsh that require letters beyond the 37 core symbols."

Four options are up for discussion, said Nominet. It can do nothing, in which case, it said, it will get left behind and become less attractive to registrants "as we will not be offering what our customers can get elsewhere".

The second option is for Nominet to allow IDNA registrations but provide no new infrastructure, which would be very little trouble for Nominet but would mean the domain name lookup service WHOIS would not return a result for café.co.uk even if xn--caf-fsa.co.uk was registered.

Option three would see Nominet offer some facilities that would enable WHOIS lookups to work, and option four would see it provide full support at significant cost to its members.

The consultation paper is available on Nominet's website.

Earlier this year, it was reported that that International Domain Names could be used in phishing attacks. Users of Web browsers such as Opera, Safari and Firefox were said to be vulnerable to cybercriminals who registered domain names similar to those of popular e-commerce and banking sites, but with one or more cyrillic letters rather than Latin. All these browsers were soon patched against the vulnerability. Microsoft's Internet Explorer was unaffected, as it does not yet support IDN.

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