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Universal domain name acceptance: Notes from the Internet Governance Forum

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“It’s crazy. It’s a problem. It’s a known problem and we need to advocate everybody to solve it,” Ajay Data said of the fact that less than 10% of email servers support addresses in local languages. Data is the chair of the Universal Acceptance Steering Group (UASG), a multistakeholder body that advocates for domain names to be parsed by computer systems regardless of language, length, and the top-level domain (better known as TLDs, like .com or .in) that they use. Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) like .भारत are often not supported, or they have to be “translated” through systems like Punycode, a workaround that renders domain names in the limited character-sets that older systems support.

Data was speaking at the 2020 Internet Governance Forum’s session on Universal Acceptance of Domain Names and Email Addresses, where panellists discussed the challenges and the way forward to better support local languages and newer TLDs online. “We try to make sure that all the groups of end users, especially those ones who are underrepresented in the community have a chance to be able to heard and to have their interests looked into,” said Joanna Kulesza, vice-chair of capacity building at ICANN.

  • Complexity in IDNs: IDNs in regional languages aren’t always straightforward to implement. “Introducing new types of characters may introduce the instability as well.  For example, we needed to tackle the problem on how to deal with the variants; for example, two different shapes of characters may semantically have the same meaning, or two different characters are actually can be confusingly similar. This kind of confusability may introduce some instability to the TLD name space,” said Akinori Maemura, General Manager of the Internet Development Department at the Japan Network Information Center.
  • IDNs in China: “Generic TLDs [like IDNs] and ICANN provide hope for Chinese Internet users,” said Walter Wu, co-founder and President of Strategic Partner & Business Development for the .商标 [shang biao]TLC, which translates to .trademark. “Registrants show their great passion for IDNs. There are over 2 million IDN domain names registered in China and Chinese registrants are 85% of the global gTLD IDN market. However, the [Universal Acceptance] issue is a big obstacle for IDNs and the new gTLDs. Internet browsers don’t support IDN. When Internet users type IDNs in the address bar of browsers, sometimes they are directed to a search page.” Wu said. He added that since English education in China was low, it was a priority to get systems to understand Chinese domain names.
  • The three obstacles to universal acceptance: Dennis Tan Tanaka, a senior platform manager at Verisign, which is the authoritative registry for the .com and .net TLDs, said that there were three major obstacles to universal acceptance: the lack of local language content, which would normally encourage technical standards to catch up; the dominance of search engines, which users rely upon heavily to find websites rather than typing in website names; and finally, end users having got used to using English for domain names.
  • The business case for supporting IDNs: A participant asked what the business case for better supporting IDNs was. Data, the UASG chair, responded:

Let’s assume that you are in a country where no IDN is required and you are a completely English speaking country; but do not forget that you do not work in isolation. You work with the world, and the world will have email addresses in their languages and you would like to communicate with them. They would like to send you an email. They would like to send you a payment and if you do not accept, you will not be able to work with them. It’s a small case and then when you deal with the whole world, you can’t just be in isolation of your whole standard; we have to follow the path of standardization. That’s the power of the Internet.

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