Monday 23rd Jan 2017

The Internet language roadblock


Roadblock signs, representing the inaccessibility of Internet language.
The Internet language roadblock

Ever driven around a city where you can’t read the road signs because you don’t understand the language?  It’s a disorientating experience.  Imagine what it would be like to try and navigate the Internet without any concept of the English language or the Latin alphabet.  5 billion people who are still offline lack the ability to navigate the web, because the Internet’s road signs, domain names don’t speak their language. They’ve hit an Internet language roadblock.

Slow uptake for local language domain names

This week, the 7th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) was held in Baku, Azerbaijan.  On the first afternoon, EURid and UNESCO held a workshop focusing on the opportunities and challenges associated with Internationalised Domain Names and Internet language diversity.  The workshop  launched the first World Report on IDN Deployment, which follows up on last year’s IDN State of Play report.

Domain Names were originally only available in a limited character set – the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, the numerals 0 to 9 and the hyphen.  That was it.  In his foreword to the World Report, Vint Cerf explains why – the goal of universal resolution of domain names trumped multilingualism.  As the users of the Internet have spread beyond the original tight-knit academic circles of engineers who created the Internet and the domain name system, the political demand for domain names in non-Latin scripts became intense.

“As the Internet has spread across the globe, the absence of support for non-Latin scripts
became a notable deficiency.”

Vint Cerf

The World Report reviews uptake of IDNs in a data sample of up to 90% of existing registered domain names, and features case studies on 5 countries which have been at the vanguard of IDN adoption.  It proposes a model for analysing the “IDN readiness” of a country or region, based on a mixture of cultural factors, Internet infrastructure, and the way the domain name registry is run.

Despite encouraging results, especially in the Russian Federation, there are only 3.5 million IDN domains, compared to more than 200 million ASCII domains.  What’s going on?

At this week’s workshop, Vint Cerf explained how complex the task remains of guaranteeing predictable one-to-one transliteration of multilingual domain names.  We heard from Minjung Park of KISA, the Korean domain registry, of the challenges they are facing in getting uptake from users.  And this is in Korea, where there high linguistic and cultural homogeneity, world beating Internet access, low costs, a thriving industry, and popular local language applications.  In other words, the perfect environment for Hangul script domain names to thrive, you would think.

Mobile devices don’t support diversity in Internet languages

The Koreans had a successful launch, with over 200,000 IDNs registered the first month.  A year later, that figure has dwindled to 100,000.  Ms Park explained that it’s not only the well known problems – email and browsers. Mobile devices still don’t support internationalised characters in a predictable way.  Google’s Android was highlighted as particularly problematic.  To which Vint Cerf, Google’s Internet Evangelist responded “Ooops” and offered to take up the issue with the appropriate people.

From the audience, Pat Kane of Verisign, the .com registry which has applied for numerous transliterations of .com in different scripts, explained that their research while showing a high level of user preference for domain names in their own language scripts, also showed that people just don’t know that IDNs exist.  So, they don’t know whether to trust them or not.  This lack of confidence can only be magnified if the domain names show up as xn-- plus gobbledegook when they type them into browsers.

“It’s like building a house, but leaving the roof off”

Janis Karklins, UNESCO

Popular applications don’t support IDNs very well either.  Janis Karklins of UNESCO said it was like building a house, but leaving out the roof.  You can’t register a Facebook account with a non-ASCII domain name. So, to join the billion Facebook users, you still have have a traditional domain.  Yet, when it comes to the content, and navigation system, Facebook has been proactive, enlisting volunteer users to translate the environment into their languages.  As a result, 70 languages are available in Facebook, according to this year’s Broadband Commission report.

Local language domain names – a vicious circle

There’s a vicious circle at play, which is undermining diversity in Internet language.  Big vendors may be reluctant to invest in supporting IDNs – especially as it’s challenging and therefore expensive – unless there is consumer demand for them.  Yet, Verisign’s research suggests that consumers don’t even know that multilingual domain names are possible, so aren’t demanding them.

For those interested in seeing Internet content, these experiences pose important questions.  Seven years ago, the lack of a multilingual domain name system was highlighted at the first IGF as an example of Internet Governance failure.  It became a political imperative to get the technology in place. Seven years on, the IDNs are available, but the market is not flocking to buy them.

Domain names not keeping pace with Internet content diversity

We can see that multilingual content is becoming more prevalent, so is it that multilingual domain names are not necessary, or is it that the market conditions and user experience are not supportive of IDN adoption?  It is argued that search obviates the need for IDNs, but we have not seen this assertion supported by research, and some countries such as the Russian Federation show that there is consumer demand for mother-tongue domain names.

My own view is that until the user experience becomes predictable, consistent and above all, easy, IDNs will not be able to reach their potential.  Meanwhile, the Internet’s roadsigns will remain unintelligible for billions of potential Internet users.

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