The perils and promise of international domain naming
(IDG) -- This past week has seen a number of changes that could affect the Internet. Time-Warner and AOL have decided to combine content with delivery. Bill Gates is set to do what he really enjoys - making software products. And the market concluded that Y2K was not an issue by the time the date rolled around and is moving on. But the most important car in the Internet roller coaster may be rattling along half a world away.
Several name registrars have decided that they are tired of trying to live with standard U.S. ASCII characters in domain names. At the same time, a grass-roots effort within the Internet Engineering Task Force hopes to develop an internationalized Domain Name System (iDNS).
In Sweden, a service is selling domain names that use Swedish characters - the standard Roman alphabet plus a few extras with umlauts over them or slashes through them. In the People's Republic of China, two registrars are handing out Chinese character domain names using a proprietary format. For the locals in both places, this is a very desirable and important service. However, it has the insidious effect of isolating them just when communication technology promises to make traditional international barriers obsolete.
The Chinese use a symbol for "crisis" that melds the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." What one makes of that is perhaps up to the person in the crisis: It is an opportunity for danger to have its way, or an opportunity to master danger by doing the right thing when the chips are down. Applied to the development of the internationalization of the DNS system, it's easy to see there is danger as well as vast opportunity.
Let's talk about the dangers first. There are at least three categories: technical, market and legal. Technically, people using the Internet can communicate because computers can communicate. If the computers cannot communicate, the people can't talk. Legal issues arise because they expect to be able to talk. Market issues arise because when they cannot talk, they cannot participate in each other's economies.
The domain name system - the distributed lookup scheme that allows us to have names such as "microsoft.com" and "intersim.co.uk" - works out for most of us primarily because all of our computers use it. You can send mail to me because your computer and mine both understand how to ask a common name service where to send the message. When the name servers stop understanding each other, those simple capabilities break down. If my name translates to my address, but my name server doesn't talk with yours, you can no longer access my Web site, send mail to me, open a voice-over-IP telephone call to me, or interact with me in any way. For you, I don't exist. This may not be a problem for you, but if I am trying to make my content available to you, to exchange mail with you or to offer you a service, it is a severe problem for me.
Now, maybe you represent a market I don't want to participate in. If so, that's fine - we can't talk and we don't want to. But suppose someone does want to talk? My wife is planning a combined vacation and business trip to the South Pacific and needs to talk with travel consultants and tourist sites there. If they happen to be running a name service that serves them well but doesn't serve my wife, we will very likely not wind up spending money on the resorts and other services that use that name service. Why are they in business, if not to relieve us of some cash? Who does this serve? I have colleagues in Pacific Rim and Asian countries with whom I correspond regularly. If their names become inaccessible to me, does this promote cultural exchange?
And then there are the legal difficulties these services represent to their customers that they have lost nothing and gained everything in going this route, and that their ideas will be accepted as international standards in the IETF. However, for the most part they are not talking with the IETF, or the folks who operate the name service. Proposals are on the table, and the discussion of an Internationalized DNS is moving along, but the promoters may or may not be a part of it, or aware of it. For the people who have purchased their names from these registrars, this constitutes a scam more than a service.
Now let's talk about the vision. The biggest problem here is that, in some sense, these registrars are right. Their clients are already disenfranchised in some sense because they cannot correctly spell their own names using the standard name service. Providing these parties a way to name themselves in their own language and alphabet offers them the opportunity to join the global village on equal footing and communicate in languages that interest them with communities that interest them. They complain that the Internet is U.S.-centric, and in this sense, they are correct. Their primary markets are not necessarily global, but local, and being able to communicate locally helps them to promote local business relationships and personalities. For them to have to use the international standard name service is irksome. For me "pepsi.com" is very meaningful - it may be where I go when I want to know about Pepsi. For them, it is just as much an incoherent scribble as Chinese characters are for me. Why should they not be able to write names equally meaningful to them, their correspondents and their customers?
The Internet is a global village, not just tearing down communication barriers, but disregarding them and blowing right past. Joining the global village is good, and customizing the village to its expanding set of occupants is important. What we need to do, however, is do this in a way that builds the whole village, rather than Balkanizing it into alleys and ghettos which do not understand each other and cannot communicate. The road forward for a working Internet is to decide together how to expand the domain name system and work together to make it happen. The road to chaos - I should say "the freeway" - is to force the issue using private schemes. We stand at the junction.
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