Egypt Applies First for International Web Domain

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The agency in charge of assigning domain names today began accepting applications for domain names written in non-Latin languages, and Egypt -- a country now drawing heated criticism from human rights advocates -- became the first to apply for a domain name in Arabic.

Following a controversial decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to allow Web sites written in Arabic, Russian Chinese, and other non-ASCII character sets, governments or their designees can now apply for the approval of such names.

Egypt has applied for an Arabic Internet domain name with a suffix equating in the ASCII character set to "masr," meaning Egypt in the Arabic language.

The move to expand domain names to non-Latin languages has been heralded as a way to open up the Web for easier access by the billions of people in the world who speak those languages.

"The first countries that participate will not only be providing valuable information of the operation of IDNs in the domain system, they are also going to help to bring the first of billions more people online -- people who never use Roman characters in their daily lives," ICANN CEO and President Rod Beckstrom said in a recent statement.

On the other hand, ICANN's measure has been criticized as making it harder for people without the right keyboards or other technologies in place to access international Web sites.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Now, another potential controversy could be stirring, because the United Nations' Internet Governance Forum (IGF) decided to gather in Egypt for this week's annual meeting, drawing highly publicized objections from a press freedom organization.

The organization Reporters without Borders has described the IGF's choice of Egypt as "astonishing" in light of Egypt's human rights record.

Criticism of Egypt from the group at a time when Egypt is also applying for a domain name with ICANN does tend to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses in that country.

Some might wonder whether countries with dubious human rights records ought to be permitted to set up domain names that are difficult for people outside those countries to access.

But the fact of the matter is that Web sites have long been written in non-Latin languages, despite the character sets used in their domain names.

Meanwhile, Web sites in some countries -- notably China -- are already using non-ASCII suffixes, anyway, without an official nod of approval from ICANN.

Like it or not, the Internet has long been a multilingual place. Communications are all but invisible to those who don't speak the languages in which a Web site is written, regardless of the domain suffix.

It might be easier for English-speakers to get to a Web site that uses a domain name consisting of ASCII characters. Yet that doesn't mean one can understand what people are saying on the site. Internet translation engines can be a big help, but their accuracy is hardly guaranteed.

Meanwhile, national governments -- even those without good human rights records -- have long had at least some say into how their citizens use -- or don't use -- the Internet, which citizens can access it, and for what purposes (again, see China).

ICANN's nod in the direction of more open access is a nice gesture, but it won't really turn the Internet into any more (or less) of a happy and humane global village.

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