Web’s Latin-Only Policy Ending
Starting in two weeks, users from countries who don’t use the Latin alphabet will find using the Internet much easier, FT reports.
Latin script’s monopoly in internet domain names will end next month, a development that could usher in a fresh wave of internet usage from Bulgaria to China.
So far, finding web addresses has required some basic familiarity with Latin letters — a deterrent for many, particularly older users. Fully opening cyberspace to scripts ranging from Amharic to Tamil will also give even greater prominence to search engines, say experts. The country designation of addresses — such as .ir for Iran and .kr for South Korea — has always been written in Latin. But at a meeting in Seoul, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit group that co-ordinates website domains, said it would start from November 16 to take applications for national codes written in Cyrillic, Arabic, Korean and Chinese. Other scripts will follow and the first non-Latin domains will go live in 2010.
“This is only the first step, but it is an incredibly big one and a historic move toward the internationalisation of the internet,” said Rod Beckstrom, Icann’s president. “We just made the internet much more accessible to millions of people in regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Russia.”
About half of the world’s 1.6bn internet users are speakers of languages that do not use Latin script, said Icann. China has the world’s greatest number of internet users, estimated at 340m. “This is a huge and positive change in internet history. This will bring access for more people to get to know the internet without even a basic knowledge of English letters, for example many of our senior citizens,” said Wang Peng, senior project manager at HiChina, the country’s leading internet service provider
Changing two letters such as .cn may appear a small step, but computer experts say many people in China do not know how to switch the keyboard to Latin letters, instead finding websites by following links. Being able to type addresses themselves could take users to more minority interest sites, a factor with important political implications in China.
My initial reaction was that this will really undermine the connectedness of the Web, turning URLs into a Tower of Babel. But, having never encountered a keyboard problem more significant than wishing there were an easier way to type umlauts, it never occurred to me how much of an inhibition the Latin alphabet was. Having to switch between keyboard sets and having to recognize long strings of characters in foreign symbols is a rather huge barrier to entry.
UPDATE: PC World‘s Jacqueline Emigh points to some drawbacks, some of which occurred to me but go beyond my technical expertise.
Yet on the other hand, the new names carry risks for new security concerns and general user confusion. Some fear the Web might grow increasingly fragmented into areas easily accessible only to those conversant in local languages.
How will you be able to type the domain names of international Web sites when your keyboard doesn’t support their character sets? It would be logistically just about impossible for a PC maker to supply a keyboard supporting the Western “ABC” alphabet, along with the disparate character sets used in all of these tongues, for example: Japanese, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Cyrillic, and the Central and European languages.
It looks as though we could see the development of a whole new class of Web domains that most people won’t be able to get to easily — even though they might be able to find those Web sites with a search engine.
Certainly language translation services and technology may be the biggest winners with today’s news. I predict both will flourish along with an international land grab for variations of the word “sex” dot-com.
Of the last, there’s not much doubt.