The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) this week is expected to announce the formation of a working group to explore the technical requirements of internationalized domain names (IDN). The IDN group will consider methods for encoding international language characters into the standard domain name system without causing disruption.
Such proliferation of internationalized domain names would likely mean added expense and management time for U.S. multinational corporations that want to protect their brand names and trademarks in local languages on the 'Net. However, the technology would be a boon to foreign companies that currently cannot buy domain names that reflect their company or product names.
"The idea that you can't put the name of your company as your URL is certainly a problem," says Scott Bradner, co-director of the IETF's Transport Area. "There's a feeling among the people outside the United States that by forcing the domain name system to be in English, we are subjugating the rest of the world. There certainly is a lot of push for us to address this issue."
The domain name system uses the ASCII character set, which includes the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, upon which the English language is based. The DNS's ASCII foundation is ideal for global communications because English is the common language of business. But it hampers local communications be-cause many of the world's languages - including Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Russian and Arabic - are not supported in e-mail or Web addresses.
A key challenge for the IETF's working group is coming up with a technical solution that can meet the needs of communities seeking local-language support without splintering the power of the Internet as a global medium, observers says.
"The business community doesn't want to see anything that will undermine the global connectivity of the Internet," says Roger Cochetti, program director for Internet policy at IBM. "The cost and time of establishing domain name registrations in different languages is not trivial, but it's not as compelling as the need for an international marketplace."
The IETF was prompted to establish the IDN working group by the recent launch of two companies selling domain names in Swedish and Chinese. The companies use different and incompatible approaches to local language domain names.
Sweden's domaininfo.com last month began selling domain names that incorporate special characters such as umlauts under the top-level domain .nu. The company is only selling .nu registrations under the Swedish country code, and customers must own the standard Latin alphabet name to register a .nu name.
Per-Anders Hurtigh, CEO of domaininfo.com, says the company has sold only a handful of the Swedish language names so far.
"The problem is those domain names can't even be used throughout Sweden," he explains. "The domains don't work in all browsers, and many service providers do not support them in their DNS. Which means that there is not a very big demand for those names - yet."
Meanwhile, a Menlo Park, Calif., company named i-DNS.net International, Inc. has established itself as a registry for local language domain names. So far, i-DNS.net has lined up six ISPs in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong to sell Chinese names. i-DNS.net is a spinoff of a test-bed project run by the National University of Singapore to explore internationalized domain names. The test bed, which involved eight Asian countries, was completed in December 1999, and a venture-funded start-up was created shortly thereafter to commercialize the underlying technology.
The i-DNS.net approach is based on Unicode, an ISO standard that maps foreign language characters to 1s and 0s. The i-DNS.net technology accepts a name in a local language, converts it to ASCII for transmission over the 'Net, and changes it back to the local language for end users.
The i-DNS.net approach creates a parallel universe for local language names, says S. Subbiah, director of the test bed.
"A lot of care was taken to ensure that the technology was not something that would break the DNS," he says. "It works within the framework of the existing Internet."