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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.

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.

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.

Bulgaria told to forget about .бг

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2011, Domain Policy

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.

AusRegistry chalks up third Arabic domain win

AusRegistry International has announced it has been picked to provide the back-end registry for عمان., the Arabic-script internationalized domain name for Oman.

It’s the company’s third IDN ccTLD contract in the region, following on from Qatar’s forthcoming قطر. and the United Arab Emirates’ already-live امارات.

The company’s press release suggests to me that it’s a software/support deal, rather than a full-blown hosted back-end registry solution.

AusRegistry said it will “provide Domain Name Registry Software and supporting services for the establishment of a new Domain Name Registry System”.

It has previously announced back-end deals for ASCII ccTLDs including .qa and .ae, and manages Australia’s .au, which recently passed the two million domains milestone.

The deal with Oman, which AusRegistry said was competitively bid, also encompasses .om, the nation’s regular ccTLD.

While ICANN approved Oman’s chosen string under its IDN ccTLD Fast Track program back in October, it has not yet been delegated to the DNS root zone.

With the approval of Ukraine’s Cyrillic ccTLD last week, 25 territories have had their choice of local-script ccTLD given the nod under the program.

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