Call it the character issue.
The same problem afflicting page display can make searches and registration of domain names next to impossible. Users around the world are forced to make do with the Roman character set, which simply does not work for some languages.
In Arabic, for example, searches might rely "on the root of a word and not merely on the final form," said Badr H. al-Badr of King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. That's because a single word may have more than 100 variants to convey separate meanings.
Some search engines address this. AltaVista, for example, started offering searches across all major character sets, including Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Japanese, and Korean, in 1998 -- the first to do so. It used Unicode to store its index.
In September, Google.com added Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to its set of 13 European languages, and by the end of the year will add modern Greek, Hebrew, and Russian.
Yahoo has set up separate search portal sites for worldwide geographic markets. It offers sites in Japanese and Chinese (both traditional and simplified versions), divided among mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
But none of that gets to the issue of domain names.
Until now, domain names have been restricted to a subset of the Roman character set (A to Z), the digits 0 through 9, and a few punctuation symbols.
But many words in non-European languages are impossible to represent accurately this way, and users accustomed to other scripts may find Roman characters difficult to remember.
In desperation, some Asian companies even use numbers alone for their domain names. Take 13579.com, which belongs to Dozo Development Co., Taiwan. "Numbers make more sense to a Chinese speaker than a domain name with English letters," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of policy communications at Network Solutions, Herndon, Va.
But Network Solutions, the world's largest domain-name seller, is spearheading the move toward internationalized addresses.
In August, the company said it would authorize the sale of names using non-Roman characters under the top-level .com domain. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are to be the first languages supported.
And non-Roman domain names have already crept into the Internet via smaller operators.
For example, i-DNS Inc., based at the National University of Singapore, has developed technology to offer domain names in a wider variety of languages than Network Solutions so far proposes -- including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Korean, Russian, and Thai.
So how do users type in such domain names? They work in the appropriate Unicode character set, which is translated into a conventional ASCII numerical address at the domain name registry level, according to i-DNS. The only requirement is that the user has an Internet service provider with an i-DNS-compatible name server, or sets up the Internet account to use i-DNS's own name server. i-DNS also offers software that converts the Unicode address to the corresponding ASCII domain name at the client end.
In this way, i-DNS is backward-compatible with DNS, according to the company, whose technology is being used by other ventures to sell domain names in a variety of character sets.
One of those is Enic Corp., which offers such names under the .cc top-level domain. That domain is the national code for the tiny Cocos Islands, but is managed on behalf of that nation by Enic, and .cc domains are available to Web ventures around the world.
And in Australia, Internet Names WorldWide, a division of Melbourne IT, also uses i-DNS's technology to offer multilingual domain names.
Still, building a multilingual Internet may only be the beginning of globalization -- and it may not be the most important part.
"There are also important policy issues, such as the protection of trade names, that must be addressed," O'Shaughnessy said.
"The success of companies and economies has many large factors," said Sergey Brin, president and co-founder of Google.com. He doubts that character-set support will have much more impact "than a fish pushing an iceberg."
A multilingual Web may also feel very different from today's. "Social fragmentation may occur as language-specific communities of interest develop to serve the growing number of non-English-speaking Internet users," O'Shaughnessy said. "This in turn may force the development of new business models to facilitate communication across language barriers." >[? Yet maybe, he added, the Internet will bridge the language gap. After all, he said, "the Web has an opportunity to be a unifying platform."