Warning issued on international domains

The Internet Architecture Board warns that the biggest change to the Internet since the introduction of IP could well go wrong -- and we'll be stuck with it for the next 50 years

"If you're not frightened, you don't understand the problem."

This was the warning given to the Icann public forum yesterday by the Internet Architecture Board's John Klensin on the subject of internationalising domain names.

The idea seems simple: make it possible for people to enter domain names in their normal script system.

The term 'language' is avoided in this context, as the Chinese language is used differently in China and Taiwan, for example.

Internationalisation is very important, but Klensin said it represents "probably the biggest change to the Internet since the deployment of IP [Internet Protocol]", though the difference is that we cannot tell people they must make the change "or you're off the network".

Several schemes, including the following examples, appear to offer solutions or partial solutions, but they all have drawbacks.

Localisation (setting up different mappings from names to IP addresses in different countries) is fairly easy, but can destroy the uniqueness of domain names and doesn't help someone speaking a language that is not the official language of the country they are in, or where their ISP is located.

The ISO 10646 and Unicode character sets look promising, but they are "C programmer hostile" (and therefore make it easy to make mistakes) and they use multi-byte characters, which is an issue when domain names are limited to 63 or 64 bytes.

And while Unicode unifies the Chinese, Japanese and Korean character sets so each glyph only appears once, that wasn't done with the Latin, Greek and Cyrillic sets.

"The word 'insolvable' is probably more appropriate than 'hard'," said Klensin. No DNS-based solution will be adequate, he said, suggesting that the best -- though still difficult -- approach would be to build a directory layer in between applications and the DNS.

If done properly, that would work for all applications, though their user interfaces would need to be reworked to cope with the 'don't know' or 'maybe' responses that a directory can return, compared with the exact matches generated by a DNS.

"Get it wrong, [and] we'll be living with it 50 years from now," he warned.

But James Seng of the IETF working group suggested that a relatively short-term solution is needed, and that its Nameprep specification (a proposed method of preprocessing names so that equivalents in different scripts will be matched) is actually simple, despite the length of its definition.

Given another five years, the group could probably come up with a long-term solution that would be more comprehensive than Nameprep, which only solves a small subset of the problem.

And Icann board member Amadeu Abril i Abril warned that internationalisation efforts will increase the chance that two domain names will be considered "confusingly similar", leading to more disputes, and asked whether the infrastructure set up for the uniform dispute resolution procedure would be able to cope.

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