At the beginning of 2010 the tug of war over the Internet continues at full force on several fronts. On the one hand there is a democratization going on as the Internet becomes accessible for more people, which will also increase the commercial possibilities. On the other hand we can see the outline of a diversity which will mean challenges for all Internet users.
This last year the discussion on liberalization of the top level domain structure has been hot on the international Internet agenda. The decision to open up for anything to be registered behind the dot - .companyname, .coffe or .anything - was made back in 2008. However, it turned out to be difficult to achieve an international consensus on how the decision should be realized and what the rules should be, so the discussion is still not over.
.anything in all languages
I will get back to what will be the consequences of this fundamental change in the address system, but first I will mention the other big change in process, undoubtedly the most significant technical and political change in the history of Internet; the decision to allow top level domains in non-Latin characters. There are about 1.7 billion Internet users in the world, and more than half of them have to write in a script that doesn't represent their mother tongue. In additon around 75 per cent of the people in the world cannot use the Internet, mainly because of the lack of addresses which they can read and write.
These two changes could have been carried out independently, but they influence each other and increase the challenges.
Fundamental change of policy
What impact will these changes have for Norwegian Internet users and for Norid as registry for the Norwegian top level domain? And do we have any responsibility for the global issues? The answer to the latter is definitely yes, but first a few lines on how the address system is built up.
So far Internet addresses at the global level have been organized in two categories of top level domains. On the one hand, we have national top level domains such as .no and .se. Here, the rules for allocation of domain names, among other things, are determined nationally, and the authorities in the individual countries play a more or less active role in the operation of the top level domain. On the other hand, we have a number of generic top level domains such as .com and .org, where the rules are specified by the international Internet organization ICANN. These top level domains are usually commercial and are outside the control of national authorities.
New top level domains like .anything are proposed to be sorted into the latter category, and thus not under influence of national authorities. This is fine if we talk about a company or a commercial brand. Problems arise if the new top level domain is .norge or just .nor, or if the name is .norway or .norwegen or another name that pretends to be under national control. Norid and Norwegian authoritites are of the firm opionion that such names should not be available to just any applicant, and that the individual country should decide the policy for the use of these top level domains in their own country.
These issues are complicated further by the introduction of non-Latin characters, for how can we discover if someone has registered .norge in Chinese, Cyrillic or Arab characters?
What is the problem?
But does it really matter who decides the rules and operates behind the stage as long as the domain name is working? Mapping shows that there are significant differences between the top level domains when it comes to safe use of websites, and the main reason is connected to policies and management of the top level domains. Those applying for a domain name want a robust and stable top level domain, and with thousand to choose from, it will be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you have chosen .anything and the registry goes bankrupt, it will not be possibile to simply move the domain name to .no or another registry.
Important to pay attention
Most people are not so concerned about what is in the address field of their browser, but in the future it may be useful and even necessary to pay attention to this. Imagine that you are looking for the website of Microsoft in Norway. Today you will probably try to type microsoft.no in the address field and expect to come to the right address, and even if Microsoft redirect your request to microsoft.com, you will probably trust that you got where you intended to go. In the future though, Microsoft might get its own top level domain, .microsoft. The domain name might be written in characters that you are unable to read, or it might be written in characters that you think you can read, but which is actually written in another script and means something totally different. You don't need a vivid imagination to see that people with dubious intentions can exploit that kind of confusion.
Democratization of the Internet
But it is important to emphazise that the introduction of other scripts is a significant step towards democratization of the Internet. From a Western point of view the Internet has been globally accessible from the beginning, but in fact, the "world wide web" hasn't become a reality until now. There are more than 300 million Arabic speaking people in the world, while less that one per cent of the web content is written in Arabic. Africa alone has more than 2,000 languages spoken by more that one billion people, and even in Europe there are languages based on non-Latin characters, such as Greek and Russian. 100,000 characters are needed to represent the written languages in the world, which are estimated to be 7,000. The 26 Latin characters can only represent 100 of these languages.
After the ICANN decision last autumn more that 20 non-Latin languages are allowed already, among them Arabic, Chinese and Indian. ICANN expects 50 new top level domains immediately, and the expansion is estimated to open the gates for 325 million new Internet users, which will increase considerably every following year. This change will give large gruops of people the opportunity to participate in the information society.
Russia first in line
Russia delivered their application on their country name in Cyrillic as the very first in the non-Latin line, followed by Egypt and China. - The Internet now speaks Arabic, Egypts communications minister Tarek Kamel announced when the decision was made and Egypt applied for ".egypt" in Arabic.
Norway's role in the global issues
Some people wonder who is in the Internet board, but in fact there is no such board. Governing happens through negotiations and decisions in many supranational foras and bodies, with many different parties representing a variety of interests.
The basis is network lines, hardware and protocols, which must be built on common standards in order to communicate. In addition the address system is vital in making the Internet useful for ordinary people. This has to be standardized as well, and different parties and interests play a role: authoritites, commerce, researchers and those in charge of the domain name system locally and globally.
Norid and Norwegian authoritites are one of many contributors. Though Norway is a small country, we find that we can influence important processes by active participation, by doing our homework, and by co-operating with the authoritites.
New top level domains and a real internationalization of the Internet mean great possibilities for individuals, authoritites, businesses and other parties. However, the changes also mean risk, both for professionals and ordinary Internet users like you and me.
I wish domain name holders and others a happy and interesting new year. Watch your steps on the web and pay attention :-)
Hilde M. Thunem