Beginning of the end for the Latin-letter web

arabic-domainsThe future of the internet came into slightly better focus today when International Domains regulator ICANN, announced it will allow the use of web addresses written wholly in non-latin characters.

“Right now Internet address endings are limited to Latin characters – A to Z,” explained ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush in the body’s statement. This means that, although a Chinese site could have its first part written in traditional Chinese characters, say, its suffix must be the latin-character .cn domain.

From 16 November, a “fast track process” will begin that will allow countries to propose and register domains in their own character sets, creating a class of so-called international domain names (IDNs).

CNET reports that country codes such as .kr for Korea and .ru for Russia will be first in line, but that “international” versions other domains such as .com and .net will come afterwards.

As Chinese site Sun0769 put it – at least according to Google’s translation – Latin’s “monopoly” is ended.

Understandably, people previously prevented from using their own languages by that monopoly are pleased with the decision.
“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,” Wang Peng, senior project manager at China’s leading internet service provider, HiChina, told the Financial Times.

Being able to use their own characters will also save many people on the extra keystrokes needed to enter Latin characters.

The Guardian points out that the standard prefix for web addresses – http:// – won’t be going away. Although it should be noted that modern browsers do not require you to enter it.

Behind the scenes some technical changes will be needed, but the basic way the web works won’t change: typed addresses will still be sent by your browser to a DNS server, which translates it into a string of numbers that points your computer to the correct server.

However, some people are expected to try and use IDNs to trick people into visiting the wrong server, by exploiting similarities between characters in different languages.

ICANN is considering how to prevent them being used for phishing scams in that way. Rules prohibiting the mixing of characters from different languages are just one option being considered.

Whatever challenges it may create, though, today’s announcement can be seen as a bellweather for the web’s future.

China has the greatest number of internet users of any nation, more than 330 million, and internet use is still growing fast there, as well as in India and Russia. Of the world’s regions, it is the Middle East whose internet population is growing fastest.

As we noted in our analysis of the recent move by the US to concede its hitherto complete control of ICANN, those trends have long meant it was only a question of when non-latin characters were allowed, not if.

Now that they have been let in, it seems reasonable to predict that before long more sites on the web will use non-Latin characters than those that do.