Multilingual Domain Name Delay a Barrier to Net Diversity

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses on the delays associated with establishing multilingual domain names (often referred to as internationalized domain names).  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.
ICANN has long pledged to remedy this issue.  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."

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.


  1. Do some research
    I understand that you are a lawyer and not a computing expert, but seriously, how about doing some actual research on an issue before writing an article?
    There is already an estbalished system for using non-ASCII characters in domain names called IDNA and it is already being used. It is not ICANNs fault that use of the system is not yet widespread.
    Lack of use is mainly due to lack of support in end-user software, which for most users means Windows and Internet Explorer, which have only just introduced support for IDNA.
    Saying that the issue has “languished” is a gross misrepresentation. The issue was raised and a solution was developed. What more do you want?

  2. Chris Charabaruk says:

    Actually, Firefox used to have support for international domain names, but because of security issues resulting from certain issues with Unicode (not the least of which is the possibility of a single string of characters having more than one possible value) it was disabled. The statements that there are high technical barriers to IDNA support are true and as someone who has tried to make sense of the technical shortcomings with Unicode and other text encoding schemes, I can attest to this.

    There’s a good reason there isn’t any real support at this time — it’s too broken to be usable. Until the encoding issues are resolved it will be hard to manage and easy to phish.

  3. Alexandre Racine says:

    Stu, I understand that you are not a human expert. When people want, they do. What is happening right now? Nothing from the CIRA and nothing from ICANN. As you state, the technology is there, but what politics people are are doing?

  4. Thomas Goodey says:

    “Most of the non-English speaking world is literally locked out of the domain name system by reason of limitations in language.” What nonsense. Everybody in the world who can use a computer at all is perfectly familiar with the Roman alphabet – trust me; I have been around and I know. They can and do use the internet perfectly well. Basically the current DNS isn’t broken, so don’t fix it! Keep the DNS system working with the simple formula of twenty-six letters A through Z – nothing above the line, nothing below the line, no diacritical marks, no squiggles, no Cyrillic characters masquerading as Roman characters, no idiocy.

  5. Thomas, you are very self centered. There are hundreds of millions of people that don\’t speak english. Last I checked english wasn\’t the biggest language in the world. It is actually Chinese. There are hundreds of millions more Chinese speakers than there are English speakers. Maybe someone from China will start making fun of our language.

  6. David Wrixon says:

    Stu, you are absolutely correct. System is in place and largely working and just waiting for critical mass of browser support which is most absent where it is most needed. Gates goes on about support for the Third World but his attitudes to IDNA have done more to undermine progress in the Third World than his philanthropic acts can ever correct.

    Chris. Mozilla has a lot to answer for. Phishing is a huge problem and will become increasingly so if expect people to navigate in unfamiliar scripts. The risk posed to the rest of the World are far greater than those posed to the US which seems to only have its narrow interests at heart. Nothing new there. Mozilla should be supporting ICANN in a constructive manner rather trying to dictate to Verisign, which incidentally is the only registery it does not support. Verisign implement ICANN policies not Mozilla\’s.

    Thomas that is the most ill informed xenophobic comment I have come across in a while. IDNA goes through the DNS in ASCII format. Nobody is or ever has considered putting characters other than the ASCII set already used into the DNS. None of this is done at DNS level. Admittedly, ICANN have gone a long way to try to convince people they are doing something technically difficult they are not. And to date they have done little other than talk.

    Michael your problem lies with the .CA registry rather than ICANN. They could implement this stuff tomorrow if they so wished, unless the dot CA extension is not acceptable to French Speakers.

    If you all want to learn more, which clearly you all need to, please visit

  7. Thanks for writing your article
    Hi Michael,

    I am very happy to see this topic raised within the USA… great!!!

    Even though I am shocked at the ignorance there is among the general population on the importance and usefulness of capitalizing on IDNs (International Domain Names) and the development of websites in native users local languages.
    Really if one is serious on export growth – this is a rhetorical question you have asked… almost laughable really (but needed perhaps).

    I am sure that among the more savvy International Marketers, there will be lights going on when they read your article… and a very big, general overall rush into IDNs & local content once browsers like IE7 become mainstream (and people see these IDNs for the first time as not only roman alphabet code).

    At last there is a way to access markets like China, Russia etc., which we all know lead the greatest growth potentials for brands with stagnating growth at home due to market saturation.

    I am sure Canada will also see the advantages… and politics will change in favour of logic.
    I am sure they will follow the trend even small countries like New Zealand have done for their own official native language other than English (even though it is very, very small compared to the French population in Canada) – I hope Canada sees the light very soon.

    Please keep an eye on IDNs generally and let people know that they are here & operational NOW (and everyday ignoring them is a huge chance lost for export growth).
    Articles like yours, also help ensure that people are not blinded by thinking the world runs only in English, and miss the biggest push for international marketing in a long while / the marketing bandwagon as a result of being misinformed & uneducated.

    Cheers & best regards, Andrew

    PS: On the positive side – my hat off to Google for recognizing the potential this offers to their global position & brand – they have reacted very constructively overall in ensuring IDNs and local language websites are handled well and are ahead of the pack on this issue.

  8. ignorant
    Thomas> Everybody in the world who can use a computer at all is perfectly familiar with the Roman alphabet – trust me; I have been around and I know.

    Well, Thomas, I have no idea what you mean with “around”, but there is more out there than just Mexico. French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, etc. All these languages use the roman characters (you know Rome is in Italy, right?) but we have many signs that do not exist in English, and do make a difference. For example “año” means “year” in Spanish; now try to register a domain with only ASCII characters (ASCII from American Standard….) and you get “ano”, which means literally “ass hole”. Maybe this helps seeing the importance of a more-than-just-ASCII domain name.

    So, Thomas, next time you go “around”, try to get out of the touristic hotel, or the English-speaking area.

  9. ccTLD admin says:

    I work with DNS in African and American countries, as well as in countries that use squiggles and dots to separate “years from assholes”. And I support Thomas’ 100%. Don’t break the DNS. Begin with understanding what DNS is (no, it’s not a word search – for that you have Google). It’s a label to identify IP-addresses. Why limit the DNS to 26 characters (a-z)? Because these characters are available on ALL THE KEYBOARDS IN THE WORLD. Duh. You can have your 85.000 different characters in DNS, but only if y’all agree to rewrite all the million of available tools so that I am allowed to enter all my IP-addresses using roman numerals. It’s my RIGHT, right?!!!

  10. I also work with DNS. I even reserved an IDN domain name to make some tests, and it’s wonderfully broken by most server software all around the world.
    It may seem great for someone to be able to reserve a french name for an hotel, let’s say “hôtelduhé”, but if you are a non-french tourist visiting France and want to see the website of your hotel to get their phone number with your wireless enabled laptop with an English keyboard, I wish you good luck.
    Furthermore, did you ever try to send en email with such a domain name? I guess not, but I did, and you have about 0 chances that the mail will be accepted by the remote server.