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A Little Flexibility from ICANN and We Might Just Get IDNs… for Everyone

Nobody doubts that some time in the near future there will be Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) in Chinese, Russian or Arabic scripts. The Chinese, Russian and Arabic-character-using worlds are large—encompassing hundreds of millions of current and potential users. They are politically influential blocs, with the ability to demand action in international meetings. And perhaps most importantly, they are—at least when taken together—rich. Everybody knows that access on the web in these languages is not a matter of if, but simply a question of when…

But what about the poorer nations of the world that use scripts other than the largest IDNs and the typical Latin character set currently available on the net? What about Amharic, or Georgian, Azeri or Thai, Burmese or Cambodian? Doesn’t the internet community have a goal of reaching out to them in their own languages too? The answer is yes, but I fear that despite the rhetoric, some of ICANN’s policies may actually end up creating disincentives for companies wishing to fully build out the IDN space.

To listen to the words of Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s new-ish leader, the community’s goal is to help make the internet available to anyone in their own language—and in their own character set or script. And, as we heard during the Seoul ICANN meeting last year—there was actually a celebratory cocktail to usher in the new IDN age—IDNs are the future. Still, work on Chinese, Korean and the like is only the beginning. There are dozens of scripts out there.

However, there is potentially a real flaw in ICANN’s planning that threatens to upend this vision of universal IDN access, effectively leaving some scripts “out in the cold”. Under ICANN’s new gTLD implementation plan as presently proposed, registries operating existing gTLDs (or those hoping to operate new ones) will be required to apply for each IDN version separately… and pay full fees for each one. This directly impacts the go/no go decision for registry operators who need to make a reasonable “business case” for each script that they apply for, in order to justify the high application costs. And, while these costs might seem trivial for gTLDs in, say, Chinese or Arabic, this policy pretty much ensures that registry operators (new or old) will leave some scripts undeveloped.

The likely upshot is that the gTLD revolution going on around the world will bypass Georgian, Burmese, and Amharic entirely… furthering the digital divide.

There may be a solution, if ICANN has the flexibility to adjust its policies. Many of the evaluation costs in the new gTLD process are duplicated. As just one example, if a potential registry operator applies for multiple gTLDs, it is likely that most technical qualifications will only have to be evaluated once. This would lower ICANN’s evaluation costs, and should lead to reduced application costs as well, leading to more competition for (and interest in) smaller scripts. And there may be other ways to lower the barriers to entry so that companies large and small will be able to make the business case for a truly, fully IDN-friendly internet.

At every ICANN and Internet Governance Forum meeting we hear about the need to make the internet an equal- (or at least more equal-) access platform, one that respects language and culture diversity. Lowering the costs for companies wanting to provide IDN access in less popular scripts is one obvious, tangible way to make this happen. A little flexibility could go a long way to providing a real internet future for the millions that speak and write Armenian or Burmese or a host of other languages.

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