by Rima Merriman
BLOOMINGTON, Indiana — In cyber terms, a few months are equivalent to a few years. But when it comes to the Arabisation of domain names, things have been stalling. Non-proprietary standards are yet to be offered and then proposed to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for authorisation.
"China, Korea, Russia and Japan did it. Why not us," asked Wael Nasr, one of the founders of the Arabic working group at the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC). He was referring to Arabic speakers being able to enter domain names (to designate countries or the generic type of address, such as .com or .org) on the Internet in Arabic, a process that has been in the works for several years now.
Sultan Al Shamsi, a manager at the UAE Network Information Centre, says: "We are working on Arabic domain names in the UAE and in the Gulf Cooperation Council, but as far as Arabising is concerned ... there is no standard yet. What is required at the moment is an Arabic standard for all Arabic top-level domains."
At the national level, Arab governments, like those of many other countries, are deeply involved in domain name administration. But it is not clear who is taking the lead at the international level. The Arabic Internet Names Consortium, a subsidiary of MINC, is currently dormant, having run into consensus problems, according to Saad Al Najjar, one of its founding members.
The locus of activity seems to have shifted to the Arab Domain Names Task Force, which was formed in 2003 under the auspices of the UN. Nasr, who has also collaborated with the UN's Economic and Social Commission for West Asia in Beirut, says: "I don't think there is a clear line on who is doing what, but things are getting better."
Other policy questions — such as who owns the registered Arabic domain names, how to handle market confusion and educate the end user — are still largely unexplored.
All kinds of linguistic, technical, standardisation, interoperability and policy issues are involved in Arabising domain names. The Saudi Network Information Centre (responsible for the administration of Saudi Arabia's country domain name space) is conducting an online survey to find consensus for the Arabic domains proposed by vendors and researchers.
The proposals for top-level domains include using a single Arabic letter to designate a domain, the root of the word or the whole of the word. One criterion for judging the proposed options for Arabic language domains, according to the survey, is "the ease of reaching consensus among the involved parties (e.g., Arab countries)".
When it comes to which linguistic choice is best, emotions run high. To some, the difference between one choice and another is the difference between ruining the Arabic language and keeping its integrity. Najjar, forexample, believes that going with the one-letter choice (e.g., the Arabic "sh" for sharika, or company) "is an attempt to destroy the beautiful Arabic language. I do believe there are still many Arabs who will overcome this aggression and face the challenge to save our language."
Consensus on the Arabic script must also include coordination with non-Arab countries that use Arabic script, such as Farsi and Urdu. Without clear policies and coordination, intellectual property and standardisation issues arise.
Professor Abdulaziz Al Zoman, the director of SaudiNIC Internet Services, favours full-word nationality descriptors for country code level domains without the "al" (e.g., Magreb for Morocco) and full descriptive words that represent activities for generic top-level domains (e.g., sharika).
Once the language barrier is removed, it is hoped that the Arabic presence on the Internet, which is still very limited, will enjoy a healthy life. There were an estimated 8.7 million people online whose native language is Arabic in 2002, including 0.4 million native Arab speakers in the United States. The figure is likely to rise to 12 million by 2004. That is only 1.4 per cent of the online population, but with 300 million speakers worldwide, this is just the beginning.
On the legal front, many Arabic countries are in the process of legislating cyber laws. Dubai is in the forefront. The second part of its e-commerce law is currently being enacted. "We have incorporated a lot of details into the e-crime law from other jurisdictions," says Ahmed Bin Byat. "The process cost us a lot of time and money, but at the end of the day, this has enabled us to show the companies that we are serious."
According to a UN report, IT strategies in the region are often publicised to attract foreign investment or to market hardware and software. They fail to give sufficient attention to local needs.
Controls on access also vary from country to country in the region. According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, while Lebanon and Egypt have lax controls, Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE have regulations on authorised information content, banning information "contrary to the state or its system". In addition, firewalls are often used to block access.
Charles Shaaban, executive director of the regional office of Abu-Ghazaleh Intellectual Property in Amman, who attended the recent ICANN meeting in Rome, says: "Even though multilingualisation was not on the agenda of the Rome ICANN meeting, the board of directors did raise the issue again. There is a sense that what needs to be worked on now is the policy angle."
It is up to Arab countries now to come up with a standard acceptable to all. The final step will be to propose it to ICANN.
The writer lives and works in the United States. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.
This article originally appeared April 8th 2004 edition of the Jordan Times and published on Middle East Window web site at this URL: http://www.middleeastwindow.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=272