ICANN Goes Global — Gradually

Since its inception, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has been criticized for favoring the U.S. over other countries. But with a new president in office, Australian Paul Twomey — the first non-U.S. citizen to be president — ICANN is promising a more global outlook.

Two weeks ago, ICANN took a big step towards making internationalized domain names (IDNs) — also known as multilingual domain names — a reality. Here are what IDNs look like:

idn_verisign.jpg

An IDN allows a person or organization to register a domain name in any major language — from Chinese to Russian to Arabic. More important, IDNs allow non-English speakers to navigate the Internet without inputting all Roman characters for every address. While the underlying DNS will continue to rely on a subset of ASCII, the IETF has devised a way to overlay IDNs using the Unicode character set. It’s an imperfect solution, and not all techs are happy with it. For starters, the domain name is the only part of the URL that is allowed to use non-Roman characters — that is, “.com” will remain. Still, it’s a start.

On March 13th, ICANN issued the Standards for ICANN Authorization of Internationalized Domain Name Registrations in Registries with Agreements. These standards formalize four mandatory rules and two recommended rules that registries must follow in order to issue IDNs. Here they are:

Rules:

1. Top-level domain registries that implement internationalized domain name capabilities must do so only in strict compliance with all applicable technical standards.

2. In implementing IDNA, top-level domain registries must employ an “inclusion-based” approach for identifying permissible code points from among the full Unicode repertoire, and, at the very least, must not include (a) line symbol-drawing characters, (b) symbols and icons that are neither alphabetic nor ideographic language characters, such as typographical and pictographic dingbats, (c) punctuation characters, and (d) spacing characters.

3. In implementing IDNA, top-level domain registries must (a) associate each registered domain name with one or more languages, (b) employ language-specific registration and administration rules that are documented and publicly available, such as the reservation of all domain names with equivalent character variants in the languages associated with the registered domain name, and (c) where the registration and administration rules depend on a character variants table, allow registrations in a particular language only when a character variants table for that language is available.

4. Registries must commit to working collaboratively through the IDN Registry Implementation Committee to develop character variants tables and language-specific registration policies, with the objective of achieving consistent approaches to IDN implementation for the benefit of DNS users worldwide.

Recommendations:

5. In implementing IDNA, top-level domain registries should, at least initially, limit any given domain label (such as a second-level domain name) to the characters associated with one language only.

6. Top-level domain registries (and registrars) should provide customer service capabilities in all languages for which they offer internationalized domain name registrations.

Verisign Does Not Approve

IDNs have not evolved in a vacuum. For the past couple years Verisign (and other registries) have developed commercial products for registering IDNs and for making them work in existing browsers. Versign naturally sees signficant revenues in opening the doors to so many additional domain names. But it’s not at all pleased with ICANN’s new rules. Here is what Verisign had to say recently. It remains to be seen how closely Verisign and other registries abide by ICANN’s rules and recommendations.

What Next?

I believe that IDNs are going to become a fact of life on the Internet. The only significant growth of Internet users is coming from non-English-speaking countries, such as China, Korea, Russia, and the Arab Middle East. These people want to register the names of their companies in their native languages. I realize that making IDNs work on a global scale will be difficult and possbily danger to the DNS as a whole — but I also believe we need to move forward. The benefits of multilingual domain names far outweigh the risks of doing nothing at all.

There is No Such Thing as “Rest of World”

Multilingual Computing has published a very useful supplement on best practices in Web globalization.

You can download a copy here. The following is an excerpt from an article that I contributed:

There is no such thing as “rest of world.”

There is good reason why movie executives in Hollywood often ask if a film with “play in Peoria” before releasing it. The United States may be one country, but it is made up of countless cultures and subcultures, based on region, ethnicity, and income. Marketing executives have learned to tailor — (in other words) localize — their promotional efforts to these various groups. Unfortunately, when these same marketing directors take their promotional campaigns to markets outside the U.S., they often do not realize that just as many subtleties exist in other countries, cultures, and regions. Similar challenges exist in Web globalization.

For example, companies often assume that if they translate their site into Spanish that the new site will reach all Latin Americans. Consider Boston Scientific, which built a “Latin American” Web site (the global gateway is shown below). The first problem presented by the Latin American site is that the gateway uses flags for navigation and there is no such thing as a Latin American flag (a good reason to avoid using flags for navigation).

bostonscientific.gif

Boston Scientific comes up a flag short for its Latin American site

Yet the flag is a minor detail compared with the Latin American site itself. Naturally, the site is in Spanish, but what flavor of Spanish? There is no such as thing as one Spanish, just as there is no such thing as one English. And where is the Portuguese for Brazilian Web users?

As companies expand outside their native countries, they tend to break up the world into regions: EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), Asia Pacific, the Americas, or worse: ROW (rest of world). Although these groupings do offer a sense of order, they can be dangerous because they lead executives to assume that the people within these regions have more in common than just geography.

Granted, companies have a long, long way to go before they provide Web sites localized for every country, culture, and subculture. But what they can begin doing today is working toward a new way of looking at the world outside their native market — a more personal, less regional, less ROW view of the world.

The Globalization of Google

Amy Campbell alerted me to a very interesting graphic on the Google Zeitgeist page. It tracks the languages used to access Google over the past two years:

google_lang.gif

Google handles more than 200 million queries a day from around the world. Increasingly, these queries are not in English. Over the past few years, Google has aggressively localized its search engine for more than 60 languages. These language-specific search engines are very important to Google’s continued growth, since the majority of new Internet users are not native-English speakers.

Keep a close eye on that tiny purple streak representing Chinese; it’s sure to expand. While there are only about 100 million German speakers in the world, there are well over a billion Chinese speakers. Also expect to see Arabic (200 million speakers) make an entrance in a few years.

Google began in 1998 as an English-language search engine. My, how times — and the Internet — have changed. And, if you’re interested, Google is looking for an International Webmaster.

A Brand By Any Other Name

A great interview with Andy Chuang of Goodcharacters.com in Fresno, California. His company specializes in Chinese naming and linguistic evaluation. The interview was conducted by Steve Rivkin; here’s an excerpt:

For example, Toshiba once had a commercial song in China that sang, “Toshiba, Toshiba…” However, it turned out that “to-shi-ba” sounded like “let’s steal it” (tou-chu-ba) in Mandarin Chinese. People really made fun of it.

Fortunately, Toshiba is a Japanese name and its corresponding characters, Dong-Ji, means “the East” and “nobility.” Now Toshiba uses Dong-Ji more and is careful when using the pronunciation of “Toshiba.”

Some brand names travel more easily than others. Here are a few common war stories of brands that didn’t fare so well abroad:

A food company named its giant burrito a BURRADA. Big mistake. The colloquial meaning of that word is “big mistake.”

Ford had a similar problem in Brazil when the PINTO flopped. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” Ford pried all the nameplates off and substituted the name Corcel, which means “horse.”

A leading brand of car de-icer in Finland will never make it in America. The brand name: SUPER PISS.