Are Internationalised Domain Names really useful, or just a way for an ASCII-focused internet governance community to feel better about itself?
Beyond all the hoopla about ICANN’s 2009 program to enable countries to operate their own non-Latin script internet suffixes (aka the “IDN ccTLD Fast Track”), what should really matter is the Internet user.
Yes, those sitting in ICANN meeting rooms at the time, listening to the hyperbole about how the internet was now going truly global probably felt like they were feeding the hungry and bringing peace to the world. But do people actually use IDNs?
I will admit that at the time, I was dubious. Of course, saying so in ICANN circles would have been akin to wearing a “Camembert is bad” t-shirt in the streets of Paris: poor form! But still, I couldn’t help ask myself if having a single one-language system unite the world was actually such a bad thing?
“How would you like it if the Internet had been invented in China and you had to use their alphabet,” was the usual rebuke I got if I ever dared to doubt out loud. And there really is no arguing with that. If the internet was Chinese, I’d want the Mandarin version of ICANN to roll out IDNs pretty sharpish.
Nonetheless, can the usefulness of IDNs still be questioned?
Facebook in Latin
Talking to a local internet expert whilst attending last week’s excellent Domain Forum in Sofia, Bulgaria, the answer would seem to be a surprising yes.
“Why would kids in this country use IDNs,” I was told when I suggested that, surely, Bulgaria must be excited about the prospect of natural language web addresses. “What worries the authorities here is the fact that kids are using Latin scripts so much on social media sites that they don’t even know how to write in Cyrillic anymore! So even if they could use IDN web and email addresses, why would they? They want to communicate like everyone else does on Facebook.”
In truth, Bulgaria’s view may be skewed by the horrible experience it’s had with ICANN’s IDN Fast Track. The country was refused its own IDN country code due to a perceived similarity with another TLD that no-one in Bulgaria really feels is warranted. But not all potential IDN users feel they are useless. Neighbors in Russia tell of a different IDN experience.
The Russian registry saw stunning initial take-up when it opened the IDN .РФ (.RF for Russian Federation) to general consumption on November 11, 2010. Registration volumes were explosive, with almost 600,000 names registered in the first month. Strong growth continued for a year, hitting a peak of 937,913 registered names in December 2011.
But the following month, that number fell off a cliff. Total registrations dropped to 844,153 in January 2012. “Initial registrations were driven in part by speculators,” explains ccTLD .RU’s Leonid Todorov. “But when people saw they couldn’t make huge profits on the domains, they started letting them go.”
Even so, .РФ remains a real success. Although November 2012 figures show a year on year decline of 8.63%, the TLD still sports a whopping 845,037 names.
At 66%, .РФ has a slightly lower renewal rate than ASCII Russian equivalent .ru (73%), probably because of those day-one speculators, but it remains widely used. Current delegation figures (i.e. the number of domain names that are actually used for email or websites) stand at a commendable 70% and have not stopped rising since .РФ opened in 2010 with a 45% delegation rate.
The Cyrillic Russian domain sees a vast predominance of personal use, with 77% percent of domains being registered by individuals. “Russians care deeply about their national identity,” says my Bulgarian friend when I suggest that IDNs do seem to matter in some Cyrillic-using countries. “To them, Dot RF is a matter of national pride.”
So IDNs may not really be all that different from ASCII domain names, with take-up depending on perceived use or value. Europe’s IDN experience seems to confirm this, as European registry EURid’s Giovanni Seppia explained in Sofia.
He revealed that since EURid introduced IDNs on December 11, 2009, registrations reached a peak of around 70,000 (a mere fraction of the 3.7 million names currently registered in the .eu space) before dropping off quite sharply.
Why? Well .eu IDNs may not hold much potential for real use or investment value for Europeans. Although web use is possible with IDNs, software primarily designed for an ASCII-only world does not always make it easy.
Email capability would be a real boost, but so far only the Chinese seem to have enabled it for their local script domains. The Chinese registry recently announced this, without giving details on how the use of all-Chinese character email addresses has been implemented or which email clients support IDNs.
Whatever the technology, countries which combine national pride and a character set far removed from our own probably see more desire for IDNs. With two years of hindsight, Russia obviously loves its IDN. And as other countries like China bring more elaborate IDN capabilities online, demand should grow and force even this IDN skeptic to recognize the new character(s) of the internet.
This is a guest post written by Stéphane Van Gelder, strategy director for NetNames. He has served as chair of the GNSO Council and is currently a member of ICANN’s Nominating Committee.
ICANN has declined to name the people responsible for rejecting .бг, the proposed Cyrllic country-code domain for Bulgaria.
Security consultant George Todoroff filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request with ICANN a month ago, asking for the names of the six people on the DNS Stability Panel.
That’s the panel, managed by Interisle Consulting Group, that decided .бг looks too much like Brazil’s .br to be safely introduced to the internet.
But Todoroff found out today that his DIDP request was declined. ICANN said that it does not have records of the panelists’ names and that even if it did, it would not release them.
The information could contain trade secrets or commercially sensitive information and could compromise decision-making, ICANN said. These are all reasons to reject DIDP requests.
It’s pretty clear the Bulgarians are not going to quit pressing for .бг any time soon, despite being advised to give up by ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom recently.
The application for .бг was made under ICANN’s IDN ccTLD Fast Track program, which has approved a couple dozen non-Latin ccTLDs, and rejected one other.
Todoroff wrote an article for CircleID in November 2010 explaining why he thinks .бг is not dangerous.
ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom has advised Bulgarians to admit defeat in their ongoing campaign to have .бг approved as a local-script top-level domain to match .bg.
The country’s application for the Cyrillic label was rejected by ICANN’s IDN ccTLD Fast Track program last year because it was found to look too similar to Brazil’s .br.
Nevertheless, the local government and domain name groups have continued to press for the right of appeal, and have indicated they may apply again.
But in an interview with Novinite published today, Beckstrom says:
I would advise the Bulgarians to go for something else. The initial application for .бг was unsuccessful.
The job of ICANN, the organization, is to implement the policies that are developed by the global communities. Those communities did not allow the initial application to go through because of potential visual confusion. So I think the Bulgarians can go back and they can choose what they want to apply for.
The Bulgarians can apply for a three-character name, they can apply for .българия in Cyrillic, it’s really up to the local community.
He goes on to say that Bulgarians could wait for a change in policies then apply again, they could change their desired string, or they could abandon their plans altogether.
However, surveys have found little appetite among the Bulgarian public for alternative strings such as .бгр, .българия, .бя or .бъл.
It’s a tricky problem for ICANN, which is first and foremost tasked with ensuring DNS stability and security.
Confusingly similar TLDs lend themselves to security risks such as phishing, and my understanding is that if .бг were to be approved it would face opposition from interests in Brazil.
The Novinite interview also touches on the possibilities of .софия and .Пловдив, to represent the Bulgarian cities of Sofia and Plovdiv.
The .бг issue was the subject of some apparently heated discussion during the recent Domain Forum new gTLDs conference in Sofia, but I understand Beckstrom had left before that part of the agenda.
You can now watch the entire Domain Forum, including Beckstrom’s introductory keynote, for free on YouTube.
A Bulgarian domain name association has had its request for information about ICANN’s rejection of the domain .бг itself rejected.
As I blogged last month, Uninet had filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request with ICANN, asking it to publish its reasons for rejecting the Cyrillic ccTLD.
The organization wants to run .бг, which is broadly supported in Bulgaria, despite the fact that ICANN has found it would be confusingly similar to Brazil’s .br.
Uninet believes it needs more information about why the string was rejected, in advance of a planned appeal of its rejection under the IDN ccTLD Fast Track process.
But the group has now heard that its request “falls under multiple Defined Conditions of Nondisclosure set forth in the DIDP” because it covers internal communications and “trade secrets”, among other things.
ICANN’s response suggests instead that Uninet contact the Bulgarian government for the information.
I’m told that Uninet may now file a Reconsideration Request in order to get the data it needs, although I suspect that’s probably optimistic.
A domain name registrar association from Bulgaria is laying the groundwork to appeal ICANN’s rejection of the country’s proposed Cyrillic top-level domain.
Uninet has filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request, asking ICANN to publish its reasons for turning down the .бг (.bg) application and the criteria it used.
The domain, which had the backing of the Bulgarian government and people, was rejected in May on the grounds that it is “confusingly similar to an existing TLD”, believed to be Brazil’s .br.
In order to prepare for a future appeal, the Uninet organization wants ICANN to release:
1. The DNS Stability panel working criteria (or parts of it) that were applied to evaluate and subsequently reject the Bulgarian application.
2. The decision of the DNS Stability panel, used to reject the Bulgarian application.
While the ICANN panel’s decision isn’t exactly a state secret (even I have a copy), there seems to be a feeling in Bulgaria that ICANN may not have released all of its reasoning.
The document does not, for example, specify which TLD .бг is confusingly similar to.
It does, however, reveal just how strict ICANN is when it comes to evaluating IDN domains, including a default assumption that any two-letter string is confusing.
We note that two-character strings consisting of Unicode code points in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic script blocks are intrinsically confusable with currently defined or potential future country code TLD
We therefore apply a very conservative standard in our assessment of applied-for strings that consist of two Greek, Cyrillic, or Latin characters, including a default presumption of confusability to which exceptions may be made in specific cases.
Uninet said that the Bulgarian government plans to challenge the .бг decision if and when ICANN revises its existing IDN ccTLD Fast Track program to create an appeals process. It wrote:
Many people have criticized the lack of transparency and appeal options in this process, but after the ongoing public comment period we hope that it would be amended by the ICANN Board and the Bulgarian government (as a requester) will have the chance to apply for a re-evaluation of the proposed string.
In the meantime, the Bulgarian government’s IT ministry today started encouraging its citizens to write to ICANN to demand that its application is re-evaluated.