How did this happen? Years of collaboration and cooperation between countless technical, policy and linguistic experts around the world, endless patience and a fair amount of justified and motivating impatience for people to be able to use their own scripts and thus languages to access the Internet.
As Tina Dam, who leads ICANN work on internationalising domain names puts it, credit goes to the “registries and governments that have worked actively locally; the IDNA protocol authors; the policy makers; application developers” such as browsers who had to figure out how to make the url field read from right to left, and many, many more.
As my old IANA colleague, Kim Davies, says; the hard work and collaboration required to get this far is just the beginning. The people behind these new domains now need to work with their own communities to populate them. Browsers like Firefox don’t seem to have caught on yet, though they’ve had plenty of warning. And many more script and language groups are lining up behind to get their own characters into the root. Word is the Russians want Cyrillic in next (Medvedev got his game face on when he heard the Bulgarians might get there first.).
It’s hard to express what a big deal this is, and what a great day yesterday was for the Internet. The changes will be mostly invisible to most of us who speak English or type in languages that just use ASCI. While there have always been workarounds at the browser or ISP level that make it seem to many users in, say, China, that they’re typing everything in their own characters, not everyone has these workarounds. From now on, people who use other scripts will be able to access the world wide web on their own terms.
Is there any down side to this true internationalization of the domain name system? Sure. Every script that gets used has to go through years of mapping and testing characters, an enormous effort for a community that means it will take years to get to everyone. In the shorter term, there may be an increased risk of phishing domains that look like latin script, e.g. citibank.com, but actually contain a non-Latin character and bring you somewhere altogether less savoury.
There is also the fear that this will lead to the balkanization of the Internet. Will it, for example, make it even easier for the Chinese to maintain and strengthen their firewall? But anyone who tries to play the ‘gotcha’ card on these issues should first familiarise themselves with the years of expert discussions and decision-making that have gone into this development. Internationalisation is not perfect, and foreseeing problems isn’t the same as solving them. But anyone who complains in English that now they can’t type in every character of every url from their own machine should probably sit on that for a moment and think how it sounds to someone speaking, say, Amharic or Thai.
A point worth noting, these new domains are new versions of country codes like .UK or .AU and are run by country code managers. The wider process to open up generic top level domains like ‘.arab’ in Arabic or in plain old latin script still has quite a way to go, but should ultimately include non-ASCII characters.
Yesterday was a great day for celebration. So why isn’t the world celebrating? Because hardly anyone knows yet. Apart from a 100+ word announcement on the ICANN home page, leading to an announcement elsewhere and a couple of good blog posts by Tina Dam and Kim Davies, it’s as if this huge event hasn’t even happened. I found out via my grapevine on Twitter. Stories are just beginning to appear in the mainstream media, but not remotely on a scale that would indicate that getting the good news out to the world is being prioritised by ICANN’s leadership.
Where is the press campaign, news release, front page video, assault on social media and general drum-beating, trumpet-blaring celebration of the biggest thing on the Internet since email was invented? How can it be nearly two days since a fundamental change to how the world accesses the Internet and this news is still mostly getting around via tweets amongst insiders like me?
Wake up, ICANN! Get your communications act together. Just because this isn’t big news in America doesn’t mean it’s not big news to the world. If I were the Arab countries involved in this leap forward, I’d be confused and perhaps a little peeved.
When ICANN’s biggest news story of last year kicked off – the relinquishing by the US Department of Commerce of a legal claim of authority over how ICANN operates, in favour of a more international approach – the story was launched on the front page of the website with videos, press release, and endless quotes from big cheeses around the world saying how important it all was. It takes a lot of ground work to pull that off, but it was a priority, so it got done in time. An aggressive international press campaign put the story into mainstream media around the world. It was a big deal that looked and sounded like a big deal.
This time round, not-quite-silence but not a whole lot of parades and bunting either. It’s not as if internationalised domain names (IDN) came as a surprise. The process was approved by the Board in October, first applications came in November, and last week the Board gave the final go ahead to put the names in the root. I can’t help thinking that if IDN was a big domestic US issue, it wouldn’t be getting the manana treatment from ICANN’s leadership.
To be clear, I don’t think this is being buried, just not prioritized as its global significance demands. For example, I see a couple of press stories on the media page as of late Thursday night, US east coast time, but no press release, no interview with the CEO, no 2-pager for the technically challenged, no pull-quotes, no examples of how ordinary Internet users will be affected, no high flung rhetoric about how this makes the Internet truly international (for some of that, try Kieren McCarthy’s blogpost), no explanations of, to quote Vice President Joe Biden, what a big effing deal this is.
How could this happen? Perhaps it’s because ICANN’s leadership has become so narrowly US-focused. There is no longer a non-American on the dwindling executive team, and the possession of a less parochial sensibility is no longer an asset. The exodus of experienced, knowledgeable executives with deep ties to the international Internet community is beginning to show. ICANN is soon to lose its universally respected COO, Doug Brent. He will follow the head of international outreach, Theresa Swinehart, whose departure leaves the organisation with one less known, respected and deeply connected member of the global Internet community.
The open rebellion by country code managers and seething dissent of many government representatives during ICANN’s recent meeting in Kenya show an ICANN leadership that is out of touch with the vast majority of the global Internet community, and doesn’t seem to care. This needs to be fixed before it is too late.
The Internet changed yesterday thanks in part to the organisational and operational credibility of ICANN, its relationships around the world, and the open and collaborative model of technical decision-making pioneered by the Internet Engineering Task Force. A human web built and sustains the world wide web. It took years to build up. It could only take months to damage beyond repair.
Full disclosure: I used to work at ICANN as part of the communications team before I was made redundant last year following a change of leadership.
Re-posted from the Crooked Timber blog. To take part in the discussion, visit this post’s permalink on Crooked Timber.