Multi-lingual Web Addresses? Not Very Soon


2004-07-21
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Talks in Malaysia on ways to enable the writing of Web addresses in non-Roman characters like Chinese and Arabic have so far failed to produce a solution. Internet experts say finding ways to allow multi-lingual Web addresses presents enormous technical challenges.

Although the Internet is touted by many governments as an engine of development and globalization, it is still overwhelmingly an English-language medium, a fact that is delaying the level of saturation in countries that use non-Roman characters.

Multi-lingual domain names were on the agenda at the sixth annual meeting of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in Kuala Lumpur. ICANN is responsible for managing and coordinating the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS. It does this by overseeing the distribution of unique IP addresses and domain names, and ensures each domain name maps to the correct IP address.

While it has been possible for years to view content on the World Wide Web in languages that use different character sets – ; including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic – ; the biggest obstacle to a truly global network is that space in the Web browser where one types in the Web address, that is, the domain name.

A former chair of the Internet Architecture Board was quoted by AFP as saying that there were serious technical problems in creating domain names in local-language characters, including regional variations in characters in languages such as Chinese, and the fact that some languages such as Arabic are written from right to left as opposed to left to right in English, U.S. Internet expert John Klensin said.

But Kieran Baker, ICANN's general manager, said the meeting was expected to provide "some conclusions on how we can more forward."

While some U.S.-based domain-name registration services such as VeriSign already accept non-English, or rather non-ASCII (the American Standard Code for Information Interchange – ; the code computers use to convert keystrokes into language that other computers can understand) domain names, the situation has already been complicated by the Chinese government's decision to set up its own register for Chinese character domain names.

The key to multilingual character sets on the Internet lies with Unicode, the coding system that encompasses the characters used in all written languages, and the ability of engineers to make it compatible with the existing ASCII-based Domain Name System.

Organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force , the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium , and the Unicode Consortium , work to promote the adoption of systems that work across languages and platforms.

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