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Who really uses IDNs? [Guest Post]

Stéphane Van Gelder, November 19, 2012, Domain Tech

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.

No profit

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.”

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.

“Sexy” .sx hits general availability today

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2012, Domain Registries

The newest ccTLD to go live, .sx for Sint Maarten, starts its general availability phase today at 1500 UTC.

The registry’s web site currently lists 47 registrars that are carrying the TLD, though none of the top five registrars in the gTLD space appear to be participating.

And .sx domains will not be cheap, judging by registrar list prices, averaging out at about $50 per year.

SX Registry, which won the right to run .sx from last year, has been marketing the TLD with sex, as you may be able to tell from the lovely lady in DI’s sidebar, and some registrars are following suit.

GA is of course the final phase of the launch. The usual sunrise and landrush periods were also preceded by special priority periods for companies and individuals based in Sint Maarten.

But the ccTLD will be open to registrants from anywhere in the world.

Sint Maarten was created in 2010 by the break-up of the Netherlands Antilles. The old .an ccTLD is expected to be gracefully decommissioned over the next few years.

Chinese IDN sunrise starts Sunday for ASCII domains

Kevin Murphy, September 13, 2012, Domain Registries

CNNIC, the .cn registry, is going to open up its .中國 internationalized domain name to Latin-script strings next month, and sunrise kicks off this weekend.

Registered trademark owners will be able to apply for domains matching their marks from Sunday, according to registrars. The deadline to apply is October 11.

A second week-long sunrise, starting October 16, will enable owners of ASCII .cn or .com.cn domains to apply for the same string under .中國.

The .中國 IDN ccTLD means “.china” in Simplified Chinese. Previously only Chinese-script domain names could be registered.

CNNIC’s announcement is here, and Melbourne IT has more details here.

Malaysia to get new Arabic ccTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors is set to approve مليسيا., the Arabic name for Malaysia, at a meeting next week.

Delegation of the internationalized country-code top-level domain is listed on the board’s consent agenda for next week’s meeting, meaning it’s likely to be a case of simply rubber-stamping the decision.

It will be the 40th IDN ccTLD to enter the root, not including test zones, under ICANN’s Fast Track program.

With the notable exception of Russia’s .РФ, IDN ccTLDs have been commercially underwhelming.

The redelegation of Rwanda’s .rw, currently delegated to NIC Congo/Interpoint SARL, is also on ICANN’s board consent agenda for the August 28 meeting.

There are no issues related to the new gTLD program on the agenda.

Architelos launches new gTLD anti-abuse tool

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2012, Domain Services

Architelos, having consulted on about 50 new gTLD applications, has refocused on its longer-term software-based game plan with the recent launch of a new anti-abuse tool for registries.

NameSentry is a software-as-a-service offering, currently being trialed by an undisclosed number of potential customers, designed to make it easier to track abusive domains.

Architelos gave us a demo of the web site yesterday.

The service integrates real-time data feeds from up to nine third-party blocklists – such as SURBL and SpamHaus – into one interface, enabling users to see how many domains in their TLD are flagged as abusive.

Users can then drill down to see why each domain has been flagged – whether it’s spamming, phishing, hosting malware, etc – and, with built-in Whois, which registrar is responsible for it.

There’s also the ability to generate custom abuse reports on the fly and to automate the sending of takedown notices to registrars.

CEO Alexa Raad and CTO Michael Young said the service can help streamline the abuse management workflow at TLD registries.

Currently, Architelos is targeting mainly ccTLDs – there’s more of them – but before too long it expects start signing new gTLD registries as they start coming online.

With many new gTLD applicants promising cleaner-than-clean zones, and with governments leaning on their ccTLDs in some countries, there could be some demand for services such as this.

NameSentry is priced on a subscription basis, based on the size of the TLD zone.

GAC demands appeal of IDN ccTLD bans

Kevin Murphy, July 2, 2012, Domain Policy

The Governmental Advisory Committee has slammed ICANN’s decisions to reject at least three non-Latin ccTLDs because they might pose security risks.

Remarkably, the GAC has also asked ICANN to “urgently reconsider” the rulings, which were made to mitigate the risk of phishing attacks and other types of domain name abuse.

In its official post-Prague communique, published over the weekend, the GAC tells ICANN that the way it decides whether to approve IDN ccTLDs has been “too conservative”.

While the letter does not single out any specific ccTLDs, I understand that the advice was formulated primarily at the behest of the European Union and Greece, which have both had IDN ccTLD applications rejected on the grounds of confusing similarity.

The Prague communique (pdf) states:

The GAC is of the view that decisions may have erred on the too-conservative side, in effect applying a more stringent test of confusability between Latin and non-Latin scripts than when undertaking a side by side comparison of Latin strings.

It goes on to ask ICANN to publish its criteria for evaluating the similarity of IDN ccTLDs, to create an appeals process, to publish its rationales for rejecting bids, and to revisit old decisions.

The communique states, as formal GAC Advice:

Recently refused IDNs, particularly those nominated by public or national authorities should be urgently re-considered in light of the above considerations.

This request instantly loses the GAC credibility points, in my view, casting it as little more than another special interest group focused on the goals of its members first and internet security second.

To be clear, the GAC is appealing ICANN decisions that were designed to prevent phishing.

Greece’s application for .ελ,was rejected by ICANN last year due to its visual similarity with .EA, a non-existent – but potential future – ccTLD.

While there’s not much on the public record about the European case, I understand Eurid’s bid for a Greek version of .eu was blocked because it looks too much like Estonia’s EE.

Bulgarian IDN supporters have also been very vocal the last couple of years in opposition to ICANN’s decision to forbid .бг due to its alleged resemblance to Brazil’s .br.

While decent arguments can and have been made that some of these rulings were a little on the silly side, it’s hard to argue that they were made without the best of intentions.

The GAC has promised to write to ICANN with “further reflections on the methodology that should be followed when evaluating two character IDNs”.

The GAC as a technical regulator? That letter should make for some interesting reading.

ICANN won’t say who rejected Bulgarian IDN

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2012, Domain Policy

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.

Did Kazakhstan just screw up somebody’s new gTLD plans?

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2012, Domain Registries

ICANN has approved a new country-code top-level domain for the nation of Kazakhstan.

The new .қаз, which is “kaz” is Cyrillic, will be delegated to the “Association of IT companies of Kazakhstan”, according to a resolution passed by ICANN’s board of directors this week.

But did this move just cause problems for a new gTLD applicant?

One cultural/geographic gTLD that was proposed back in 2009 is .kab, for the Kabylia region of Algeria and the Kabyle language and people.

It’s easy to see how kab/KAB and .қаз could be considered confusing during a string similarity review, though ICANN’s laughable Sword tool only gives them a visual similarity score of 49%.

The .kab application currently has a dead web site, so it’s quite possibly one of the many new gTLD projects that fizzled out during ICANN’s repeated delays launching the program.

Key-Systems wins .dm registry deal, 20 others

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2011, Domain Registries

The German domain name registrar Key-Systems will provide the registry platform for Dominica’s soon-to-relaunch .dm country-code domain, the company has announced.

The company will provide local registry manager DotDM Corp with “tools to facilitate .dm registrations at the registry, registrar and reseller levels”, according to a press release.

It’s the first TLD deal Key-Systems, under its KSregistry registry services brand, has announced since it stopped providing back-end services for .cd back in 2005.

But KSregistry will also be involved in “more than 20” new ICANN gTLD applications next year, including brand, geographic and generic strings, according to a spokesperson.

DotDM has been the de facto manager of the .dm zone since 2001, but did not receive its official IANA redelegation until 2007. It plans to “market the .dm suffix worldwide” according to its web site.

It plans to launch the new system in the first quarter next year and is currently looking for registrars interested in accreditation.

Dominica is a small Caribbean island with a population of around 72,000, best known for its bananas.

The world’s newest TLD – ICANN approves .sx

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s board of directors has finally approved .sx, the new country-code top-level domain for newly autonomous Dutch territory Sint Maarten.

In an unexpected non-meeting earlier this week, the board voted to delegate .sx to SX Registry, a joint venture of Luxembourg registry startup OpenRegistry and Canadian registrar MediaFusion.

The vote had been delayed from the board’s meeting in October as SX Registry went through the required pre-delegation motions with ICANN’s IANA department.

Sint Maarten was created in October 2010 when the Netherlands Antilles (.an) split into three separate territories.

The ccTLD .cw for Curacao was assigned to the University of the Netherlands Antilles in October this year, but .bq for Bonaire, Saint Eustatius and Saba, has yet to be delegated.

The legacy .an domain is scheduled to be decommissioned before October 2014.