IDNs in cc-Minor: an Unfinished Symphony

When he wanted to show the transformative and unifying power of the Internet to open this week’s ICANN meeting in Seoul, ICANN President Rod Beckstrom had an ace in the hole: Korean guitarist Jay (Jeong-hyun Lim), who became a global YouTube sensation with his hard-rocking version of Pachelbel’s Canon.

As I watched Jay wail on his gold-plated guitar to standing ovations, I couldn’t help but think of Rod waxing that the Internet was a “symphony” of ideas and voices from around the world.

Rod’s right, of course. The Internet is a symphony of ideas, and the challenge of ICANN has always been to help everyone hear what everyone else is playing.

Which is why it’s so perplexing to me that in one of ICANN’s biggest initiatives—the introduction of internationalized domains—the organization is trying to open a new symphony with most of the orchestra missing.

The single most important thing ICANN can do to expand the global reach of the Internet is the introduction of top-level domains in non-Latin character sets. Over half the world’s population uses alphabets other than Latin, so these internationalized domain names (IDNs) will finally let them read and write domain names and email addresses in their native languages.

But under ICANN’s current plan, the symphony heard by IDN users speakers will be a mere echo of the symphony that the rest of us enjoy. That’s because the only IDN domains initially allowed are in country-code domains controlled by governments, like China’s .cn, Syria’s .sy, and Iran’s .ir.

Under ICANN’s “fast-track” process, the IDN country-code domains go live first, while IDN versions of global domains like .com and .org will languish in bureaucratic process for at least another year.

It’s curious that Rod chose a YouTube sensation to demonstrate the Internet’s symphonic impact, because IDN users won’t be able to type in the equivalent of YouTube.com, the site that made Jay an international sensation.

That’s right. Jay was inspired by, and discovered on Youtube.com, but there won’t be a Youtube.com in Korean, or Chinese, or Arabic until 2011 at the earliest.

What’s troubling about all of this is that IDN users may have less access to the free and open Internet that the rest of us take for granted. That’s because country-code domains are subject to more government control than are global generic domains: a government can suspend any domain in its ccTLD registry if they don’t like the content or conduct. In the wrong hands, this can become a brutally effective tool for suppressing free speech and expression.

For example, if you want to reach Iranian citizens via a domain in their native Farsi script, only Iran’s government can give it to you now. A Farsi version of global domains like .com and org isn’t going to be available until 2011 at the earliest.

Iran allows .ir domains only to organizations legally represented in Iran, individuals residing in Iran, and others “whose activity and the use of the domain name are not in conflict with the laws, practices and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” If you can get a .ir domain, don’t expect to stay online if your videos or comments are critical of Iran’s foreign policy or the conduct of their recent elections.

Still like the sound of the new IDN symphony that ICANN is conducting? Let’s raise our lighters and demand that ICANN let the rest of the musicians play, too.

Written by Steve DelBianco

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