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ICANN takes a very big small step

ICANN took a small, but incredibly important, step on Tuesday, announcing at the Internet Governance Forum that they are fast-tracking internationalized country code top-level domains and starting experiments to test support of these names. The hope is that it will soon be possible to visit sites like 北京大学.中国 (Peking University dot China) and not just http://北京大学.cn.

I realize this seems like a small change to most of my readers, but those who are bilingual in languages that use a different script from roman characters likely realize the importance. It’s more convenient to type URLs in a single script than changing between scripts. (For my monolingual American readers, imagine typing .公司 for all your .com domains for a day and see how you like it.)

The symbolic importance is more relevant. The fact that top-level domains have been supported only in roman characters is a reminder to non-English speaking net users that the Internet developed first as a US network and that domain name issues were under control of a US company appointed by the US Department of Commerce before ICANN took things over. It’s an issue that comes up in any international discussion of internet governance when people are looking for arguments that ICANN is too US-focused and that the net hasn’t been fully internationalized.

While I’m not hugely sympathetic to these arguments – ICANN has worked really, really hard to invite public participation as Joi Ito points out in this blog post reflecting on his term as a board member, and much criticism of ICANN is uninformed or unfair. But there’s been a real concern in some technical circles that dissatisfaction with ICANN’s handling of internationalized domain names could lead to a split in the root.

Specifically, experiments to add support for .中国, .公司 and .网络 domains to Chinese nameservers suggested the possibility that Chinese ISPs might run root servers that would support these new TLDs, while the rest of the Internet couldn’t use these names without accessing those Chinese root servers. A nightmare scenario that arose out of this idea is that those Chinese DNS servers could stop syncing with the rest of the global domain name system, which might mean that google.com could resolve to a different IP address on a Chinese DNS server than on a Japanese or American one. Steven Murdoch ran some interesting experiments demonstrating how these new names would work and speculating on what a split root might mean.

If ICANN is able to support top-level domains in Chinese, Arabic, Persian and other languages, it may go a long way towards smoothing feathers, and could help prevent a dramatic split where it really is no longer possible to talk about “the internet”… a world where competing nameservers in different nations leave us talking about “internets”.