Today is a big day for the Internet, even if its effects aren’t immediately obvious to the Western reader: The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has just announced that the first three non-Latin top-level domains are now live. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all have Arabic script domains: السعودية. (“Al-Saudiah”), امارات. ( “Emarat”) and مصر. (“Misr”), respectively.
From ICANN’s blog:
The three new top-level domains are السعودية. (“Al-Saudiah”), امارات. ( “Emarat”) and مصر. (“Misr”). All three are Arabic script domains, and will enable domain names written fully right-to-left. Expect more as we continue to process other applications using the “fast track” methodology.
ICANN staff are still finishing the processing of these domain’s delegations, but now that they are visible in the root zone it is fair to say these are mostly formalities. The remaining tasks include final technical verifications, updating the IANA WHOIS database and publishing the delegation reports.
There are a few potential dark sides to an Internet unconstrained by non-Latin domains, some of which have more validity than others. One old fear is that this will present a bonanza for phishers and Internet scamsters, who will be able to exploit inter-alphabet confusion: For example, making a fake site that looks like “aol.com” but actually uses a Cyrillic “a.” The threat that this should actually happen appears to have been much overstated: As ICANN points out, “rules preventing the mixing of Cyrillic and Latin in a domain name label have been in effect for gTLDs since 2005.”
Arguably, the greater threat is censorship and “ghettoization”: that by virtue of domain shifts, the Internet will become a more divided place — and thus, easier for authorities to repress. From an LA Times article last year:
But once Egypt is granted its own domain name, local sites that wish to register with the official domain must approach the government authority, which could reject an application from say, an opposition newspaper.
“It’s likely that Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain will strictly limit which sites can be registered in their domain,” Jillian York, the project coordinator of the OpenNet Initiative at Harvard University, wrote in an e-mail to The Times.
Whether this ultimately makes the Internet a more or less inclusive place is being debated. Critics worry that the introduction of domains in non-Latin scripts will create walls between online communities where none existed before, making it harder for people from around the world to communicate.
Still: It doesn’t seem quite right that roughly half of the Internet-using population should be forced to interact with domains that are not in their own languages, as they’ve had to until today. As both a bureaucratic and a technical achievement, what ICANN has done here is immense.