Imagine if each time a Canadian Internet user entered an email or website address, they would be required to include a Chinese or Cyrillic character. For millions of non-English speakers around the world, this is precisely what they experience when they use the Internet as the domain name system is unable to fully accommodate their local language.
Since their inception, domain names have been largely confined to ASCII text, based on a Roman character set used in the English language. While this works well for people familiar with those characters, thousands of other language characters – from French accents to the Greek alphabet to Japanese Kanji – are not represented. This creates a significant access barrier for non-English speakers, who are forced to use the Roman characters for most aspects of their Internet addressing.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the agency responsible for administering the domain name system, has long pledged to remedy this issue by creating “internationalized domain names” (more appropriately described as multilingual domain names). Indeed, nearly seven years ago the ICANN board passed a resolution recognizing "that it is important that the Internet evolve to be more accessible to those who do not use the ASCII character set."
Notwithstanding its stated commitment to multilingual domains, the issue has languished, a victim of indifference and even occasional hostility from ICANN leadership. Last year, after a group of developing countries emphasized the need for faster progress on the issue, ICANN President and CEO Paul Twomey warned that "if we get this wrong we could very easily and permanently break the Internet."
Multilingual domains have also been stymied by opposition from the trademark community, a powerful lobby group within the ICANN system which fears that the introduction of new language characters will lead to market confusion and a proliferation of cybersquatting disputes.
ICANN has repeatedly struck committees, held workshops, and introduced guidelines, yet there has been little to show for the efforts. Governments have become increasingly impatient with the lack of progress. At the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, they specifically underlined the need to "advance the process for the introduction of multilingualism in a number of areas including domain names, e-mail addresses and keyword look-up" and to "implement programmes that allow for the presence of multilingual domain names and content on the Internet…to ensure the participation of all in the emerging new society."
While the international Internet community has struggled with the multilingual domain name issue, many countries have prioritized the implementation of local languages within their country-code domain names. In fact, the strongest indictment of international inaction comes from the experiences elsewhere – China, Korea, Germany, Sweden, Greece, and Israel are among the dozens of countries that have successfully implemented multilingual domain names within their local domain name system so that Internet users can function in their local language when using country-code domains such as dot-cn (China) or dot-de (Germany) even if the international system is still off-limits.
Canada has disappointingly lagged on this issue. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), which manages the dot-ca domain, should pass one million domain name registrations by early 2008, yet implementation of French language characters is only likely to take place in the next few years.
CIRA has faced community pressure to address the issue. Multilingual domains were raised as a concern at a 2003 CIRA public forum in Halifax and again at a 2004 CIRA public forum in Calgary. At each event, CIRA indicated that the issue was a priority and promised action by 2006.
By August 2006, the Government of Quebec decided that it had waited long enough. In a letter to the CIRA Board (I was a member of the board at the time), it delivered an official request for multilingual domains to allow for the use of French language characters.
Most of the world – including thousands of Canadians – are literally locked out of the domain name system by reason of limitations in language. With an ICANN meeting set for later this month in Puerto Rico and the CIRA annual meeting scheduled for early September, the time has come to prioritize linguistic diversity on the Internet by giving multilingual domains the attention they deserve.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.