Anthony Doesburg: Chinese-script domain names a web milestone

By Anthony Doesburg

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When New Zealander Peter Dengate Thrush announced a month ago that an obstacle to registering .xxx websites had been removed, he created a distraction from an even more important internet milestone.

The Wellington lawyer is chairman of ICANN, the international non-profit internet governance body.

At the same meeting in Brussels where the headline-grabbing .xxx news broke, ICANN's president and chief executive, Rod Beckstrom, made an announcement of vital interest to the world's billion-plus Chinese speakers.

ICANN's board had approved a set of Chinese-language internationalised domain names (IDNs), Beckstrom said, that would enable access to the internet using Chinese script.

"One-fifth of the world speaks Chinese and that means we just increased the potential online accessibility for roughly a billion people," he said.

Once the final technical patches are in place in another month or two, Chinese internet users will no longer have to struggle with typing the .cn part of a Chinese web address using the Latin alphabet. It might sound trivial.

But Beckstrom said in places that were liberated from Latin characters earlier this year - namely Russia, where the Cyrillic alphabet is used, and some Arabic-speaking countries - there was an excited response.

Extending that same facility to internet users in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan was "truly historic ... it helps us move one step closer to one world, one internet, everyone connected", he said. Predictably enough, in this part of the world the media had much more to say about the .xxx decision and what it might mean for online porn.

Some reporting suggested ICANN had already flung open the floodgates on .xxx domain names. But all that has happened is that it has overturned an earlier decision not to negotiate terms with ICM, a United States outfit that wants to make .xxx a home for adult internet content.

Agreement on terms with ICM still has to be reached and ICANN's governmental advisory committee (GAC), with representatives of governments of all shades of opinion on public morality, is yet to say whether it approves of the new top-level domain, or TLD.

At the post-Brussels meeting press conference, Dengate Thrush sent mixed messages on how the ICANN board was likely to respond to the GAC's advice.

While calling the committee "very important", he went on to say ICANN didn't concern itself with internet content.

"That's up to national governments and lawmakers and people who are qualified to make judgments about content."

As long as ICM can meet ICANN's contractual requirements, what it does with the .xxx domain is in its hands, he said.

The GAC might have another view and, if so, ICANN's bylaws obliged it to "go through a mediation process to see if we can't bring our position and their advice together more closely".

When that might be resolved isn't clear. What is known is that ICM is obviously in it for the long haul - it first proposed establishing the .xxx domain name in 2000.

What do the two developments mean for New Zealand web browsers?

Whatever your opinion of sex on the net - and lots of people have them; ICANN considered more than 13,000 submissions before its latest ICM vote - internetNZ spokesman Keith Davidson says .xxx could be beneficial.

If rules are placed on .xxx sites guaranteeing that they're free of child porn, malware and the 1001 scams that lurk in shady corners of the web, the domain name could be a useful quality mark. "There would be a level of protection associated with those sites that go into .xxx," Davidson says.

He is more effusive about ICANN's progress with introducing IDNs, the result of work that has been under way even longer than ICM has been waiting for .xxx.

"IDNs are incredibly significant in terms of the further uptake of the internet," he says.

The time-consuming part of the process comes from mapping scripts with thousands of characters - Japanese, for instance, has 25,000, and the word "Toshiba" more than a dozen spellings - on to the Latin alphabet-based ASCII code that underlies internet addresses.

"There are a lot of technical underpinnings that need to be resolved."

It's the sort of work he and Dengate Thrush, who cut his teeth at internetNZ before moving on to bigger things, have been immersed in for years.

The .xxx domain might get tongues wagging and even rival the number of internet users touched by IDNs, but content issues don't divert Dengate Thrush from what he sees ICANN's role to be.

"We're not in the content business," he said at the Brussels press conference. "What we're responsible for is providing safe, stable, documented processes in relation to the names and numbers of the internet."

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist

- NZ Herald

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