As expected, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, more commonly referred to as ICANN, approved the use of non-Latin characters in domain names. Concluding a week of meetings in Seoul, South Korea, the ICANN vote takes the Web a step closer to actually living up to the 'World Wide' part of its name.
The move comes rather quickly in the wake of the United States loosening its draconian control of ICANN. It was less than a month ago that the United States released sole oversight of ICANN and turned it into a global, private-sector led organization.
Prior to the vote ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom shared the importance of the decision. "This represents one small step for ICANN, but one big step for half of mankind who use non-Latin scripts, such as those in Korea, China and the Arabic speaking world as well as across Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world."
Expanding the Alphabet
Web sites have been able to use some international alphabets for part of the URL, but until this decision the domain suffix--the part at the end like .com or .us--has been a victim of its roots. It may be called the World Wide Web, but it was born in the United States, controlled by the United States, and the domain naming conventions have been a slave to their heritage.
ICANN will begin accepting requests for domains using traditional or simplified Chinese, Russian Cyrillic, Hebrew, Hindi, Arabic and other international alphabets, but only for a limited set of top level domains (TLD). The initial approval applies to regionally-controlled country-code TLD's only. So, international characters will be accepted for domains like .ru (Russia), .cn (China) and other similar domains, but not for the generic TLD's like .com and .net...at least not yet.
Potential Risks and Concerns
The decision on using international characters for generic domains is still a year or two off. ICANN has to wrestle with the implications of having .com being able to be expressed in multiple alphabets. Should an entity like PC World automatically be granted its pcworld.com domain in all available alphabets, or would each international incarnation of the domain be a separate Web presence? ICANN members don't currently agree on how to address that issue.
The use of international alphabets also poses some other potential problems. As far back as 2002 security researchers recognized that similar-looking characters, or homoglyphs, could be transposed to spoof a domain name. The concept is similar to techniques used to make more complex passwords or in hacker-speak. For example, my name could be represented by T0ny Br@dl3y.
It is fairly obvious that the example uses numbers and alternate characters, but some international alphabet characters may appear virtually identical to Latin alphabet characters in some fonts. So pcworld.com in the standard English alphabet will take you to the official PC World domain, but transposing an alternate international character for the 'c' or the 'o' could result in a unique domain URL which could be used to create a malicious spoof of the pcworld.com web site.
It's a Small World, After All
The United States has a generally high opinion of itself. We have a tendency to call things 'World' when they are really United States-centric, like the World Series going on now between the Yankees and the Phillies. No other countries were invited to participate, so who's to say the winner of the World Series is actually the best team in the world?
The potential concerns aside, the move by ICANN is a step in the right direction. The Internet just turned 40 years old. It has transformed the way people communicate and do business around the world. As it turns out, a good percentage of the world doesn't read, write, speak, or think in English. It's about time that the World Wide Web be more accessible to people outside of the Western hemisphere.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.