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The Net Ain't Just for English

USA, www.wired.com, 13 November 2000 -- The lack of internationalized domain names is causing a worldwide digital divide and creating a class of people who are information have-nots because they do not speak English, said Tan Tin Wee, acting CEO of the Multilingual International Names Consortium.

"There are many great masses out there feeling locked out because they think the Internet is a distant thing," Wee said. "This is a serious problem for the English-less."

Wee said his organization has pulled hard to get the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) started on its standard-making process for internationalized domain names. Currently, only English-based letters can be used when registering domain names.

At the same time, Wee said, it's important to use a standards-based approach to avoid the "balkanization" of the Internet.

The remarks came during a meeting of experts arranged by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It's one of numerous meetings in advance of this week's ICANN board meeting in Marina del Rey, California.

ICANN, the Net's naming authority, is taking a wait-and-see approach to introducing internationalized domain names to the Domain Name System, which matches domain names to the individual computer addresses on which they are hosted.

Louise Touton, ICANN vice president and general counsel, said the nonprofit corporation wants a standard to develop through IETF. The approach is supported by all the panelists at the meeting.

Although there was some consensus that the IETF should develop its standard through its Internet Standards Process, technicians said the task at hand was quite a challenge.

"One of the difficulties with the internationalization of domain names is that we're deploying something into the context of an existing network," said John Klensin, technical advisor to the IETF's Internationalized Domain Name working group.

"It's the most significant change since IP (Internet protocol) was deployed."

The technical implementation promises to be difficult -- with legacy protocols presenting problems of incompatibility, and with the lingering risks that commercial interests will jump the gun with "standards" of their own, he said. Klensin said the proper standards process uses testing procedures that do not include people with vested commercial interests.

"The risk, here, of having multiple implementations used by different people with no interoperability, is very serious," Klensin said. "We're trying to do this without wrecking the Internet."

But it appears that some fragmentation may already be under way. Verisign (formerly Networking Solutions) announced last week that it was independently creating a testbed for registering domain names with international characters.

Chuck Gnomes, a Verisign official, said that his company had begun accepting domain name registrations that include international characters.

"It's based on the (work of the) IDN working group," he said. "The proposal is to migrate to the IETF standard."

Gnomes said the system essentially acts as an alias through which international characters are translated into ASCII characters.

He added that while international domains can be registered, they are not yet recognized by the Internet's DNS servers (the machines that translate domain names to numeric IP addresses).

"All ICANN-accredited registrars in .com, .net and .org are eligible to participate in the testbed," he added.

The Verisign proposal came under fire from participants in the panel.

"There are a lot of boxes out there that have never seen an international character" -- such as firewall servers, said newly elected ICANN director Karl Aurbach. "I'm concerned that ... in the middle of the Internet we're going to see boxes going down."

Gnomes acknowledged there were risks.

"I understand that the IETF has not formed a standard or even a proposed standard," he said. "In the future, changes in the standard could cause a registrant's domain name to be modified or deleted."

"It's important for registrants to know up front what the possible risks are," he said, adding that Verisign would use ICANN's Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Process (UDRP) to resolve disputes.

Verisign was not the only company testing solutions that are outside the standards process. A show of hands indicated that at least six other registrars are in the process, and that there were more than 10 companies in the room providing technology solutions to internationalized domain names.

One of those technology providers was i-DNS.net, a group devoted to bringing multilingual access to the Net for all users.

James Seng, chief technology officer for the group, gave a presentation on his company's technology and its vision for internationalized domain names. Seng advocated for a system that allows for internationalized characters in domain names but is still open to fine-tuning for localized language preferences.

He highlighted the problems in implementing internationalized domain names by showing the audience how the same domain name -- samsung.kr, for example -- can be spelled multiple ways with different international characters, all in the same language. Thus, multiple registrations would be needed for the same domain.

He also showed how a domain name written in the same international characters has different meanings in Korean, Chinese and Japanese. "How is the UDRP going to handle this? Can the UDRP handle this?" he asked.

I-DNS.net has issued a technology position paper that outlines its take on internationalized domain names. The company, however, maintains it will remain true to the standards process.

"I-DNS.net believes that the IETF is the rightful authority for the establishment of a technical standard for the introduction of internationalized domain names," Seng said. "I-DNS.net will not seek to promote its solution as a technical standard."

-- i-DNS.net shall not be held liable for the views and opinions of the authors expressed herein.
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