Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why I care -- and why you should care -- about IDNs

Later this month many of the movers and shakers in the Internet world will be in Athens for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The event – part techie convention, part lobbying jamboree – promises to cover topics from a to z, with a strong focus on issues of policy, security and especially, access.

Interestingly there are now four separate IGF sessions that will discuss issues of language on the Internet. Inevitably, these discussions will look to ICANN to implement Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs). And since this issue is increasingly taking center stage (it comes up constantly at ICANN meetings too), I thought it might be worthwhile to once and for all to explain why I think the issue is so important as we move toward a more international (and less English-dominated) future.

Especially if you live in the US or Europe, you might reasonably ask yourself, “I mean really, what’s the fuss about IDNs?” After all, users can already type the name of the website they seek in the browser window using Arabic or Chinese characters (assuming they have the keyboard configuration they need). The only parts that need to be in Latin characters are the parts after the dot. The .com, .org., In the end, does it matter?

The answer is absolutely yes, especially if you believe (as I do) that south-south web trade is a big part of the future of the ‘net and a potential boost to broader economic growth and development. To explain…

First, there is the question of efficiency or user-friendliness. Consider the person working in Amharic or Arabic or Chinese who wants to do e-commerce. Sometimes there is a link, but how do you find out about sites you want to visit? In the last month I’ve read articles, seen and heard sites mentioned on radio or TV, and by far most importantly, been directed to sites by word of mouth – the most important and most reliable form of advertising in most parts of the world.

Now imagine the process. You hear of a site but then you need to change the keyboard to access the Latin character set to get to .net or .biz. I can barely figure out how to use a French keyboard (and I speak French), so I can only imagine moving from Chinese to Latin characters. Add to this the further disadvantages faced by ccTLDs and firms that wish to use them, as the more letters I need to know (and the more uncommon they are -- versus .com), the less likely I am to go there. Clearly not moving on IDNs hurts trade, and especially for Emerging Markets.

Next, look at the question of equity. I work in an office which has a number of native Japanese speakers. They complain about having to change back and forth into English (!) to go into and out of Japanese language sites, and I can't say I blame them. I know if the shoe were on the other foot – and I needed to put the suffix into Amharic or Sanskrit – I would be at a loss. Now extend this to an average person, or one with a less-than-classical education, or one from an Emerging Market economy with a much-less-than-Japanese educational system and you can see how the lack of IDNs could be an almost insurmountable barrier to participation.

Finally, there is the issue of the integrity of the Internet. We all benefit from the fact that, to a meaningful extent, there is one ‘net which we all can use. I can get info, but assuming the same connection speed, so can my sister in Boston or my friends in Geneva or Jakarta. However, the lack of action on IDNs – mostly through slow action by ICANN – has led some nations, most notably China, to consider going their own ways, essentially “forking” the Internet. We all benefit from having one system, with straightforward protocols for access. Simply put, forking would be bad. However, it is all but inevitable if ICANN does not get moving.

So, as people from around the world arrive in Athens to look at the big Internet issues of the day, let’s not forget to focus on some of the small things that really do matter. Grand discussions of access and equity are essential, but we shouldn't miss out on the chance to take a meaningful little step forward toward access to all. Access that could come with the creation of a few keystrokes.

Its time to make IDNs a reality and bring everyone to the table.