At Internet meeting, conflict over use of non-Western charcters in domains

With pressure mounting to speed up movement to numerous character sets, ICANN's Cerf assails 'political gambits.'
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Want conflict? Just throw international representatives in a room together and ask them to come up with rules and protocols to control the Internet for years to come? That would be the first Internet Governance Forum, opening in Athens today. The conflict is over the use of non-Western characters and languages in Internet addresses, The New York Times reports.

Speaking at the conference's first day, Vint Cerf said the network’s addressing system could break down if “political gambits” by international groups interfered with plans to expand the languages used in domain names.

He and other Icann officials say that what they see as a careful and considered approach is being construed by others as stalling or an attempt to undermine the use of foreign, non-English characters.

“In meetings we’ve held, there has been a very visible, and understandable, impatience,” he said. “Language is clearly bound up in national and cultural pride. They are seeing domain names as language-based, when in fact they are really just symbols that help us find places on the Internet.”

The UN's International Telecommunication Union and the Chinese government have been vocal about the issue of non-Latin characters in domain names.

“My concern is the potential for suddenly choosing another path after Icann has already put in six years of work on this,” said Mr. Cerf. “Either they will fail, or they will break the Internet.”

Currently, only 37 characters can be used for Internet addresses. ICANN is working on a plan to expand that to thousands of characters from a range of languages. Several Asian character sets have been approved, but ICANN hasn't approved symbols for the top-level domain extensions.

“It is turning out to be quite difficult to integrate this very large character set in a way that is safe and stable and will work with many applications for many decades to come — to future-proof it,” Mr. Cerf said.
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