IDNs and new gTLDs: Future Outlook of the Internet

Guest Post By Naveed ul Haq

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a California based not-for-profit corporation created on September 18, 1998. ICANN is responsible for coordination and policy making of two most critical Internet resources i.e Domain Names and IP addresses. Some of the major tasks performed include Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) and country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) name system management, and root server system management functions. Presently ICANN is going through a transition period of becoming an independent private sector lead organization based on a multi-stakeholder model. In this regard U.S. Department of Commerce has signed a Joint Project Agreement (JPA) with ICANN for the purpose of the joint development of the mechanisms, methods, and procedures necessary to effect the transition of Internet domain name and addressing system (DNS) to the private sector. The agreement was signed in December 2006 and will terminate on September 30, 2009. A broad consultative work for re-shaping post JPA ICANN in underway.

ICANN organizational structure mainly comprises of Board of Directors, Supporting Organizations and Advisory Committees. There are three supporting organizations namely Generic Naming Supporting Organization (GNSO) dealing with generic top-level domains (.com, .net, .org etc), country code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) dealing with country-code top level domains (.uk, .pk, .ae etc) and Address Supporting Organization (ASO) dealing with IP addresses. Primary role of these supporting organizations is to assist ICANN’s policy making process. To cater the concern and needs of various stakeholders ICANN also relies on different advisory committees. These committees include Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), composed of representatives of  national governments around the world; At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), composed of  individual Internet users or groups; the Root Server System Advisory Committee (RSSAC) advising on the operation of the DNS root server system; Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC), composed of Internet security experts and the Technical Liaison Group (TLG), composed of international technical organizations.

Two of the most significant activities presently being carried out by ICANN are a) Introduction of Internationalized Domain Names and b) new generic Top-Level Domains (gTLD) program. Both of these activities along with associated matters were topics of hot debate during the 33rd ICANN International Public Meeting held at Cairo, Egypt.

Internatiolized Domain Names are the domain names represented by local language characters. Present domain name architecture is based on ASCII characters and doesn’t interpret non-ASCII character scripts (like Arabic, Hindi, and Chinese). IDN efforts are subject to ICANN resolution in 2000 stating “that it is important that the Internet evolve to be more accessible to those who do not use the ASCII character set,”. Internet Domain Name system is primarily running through a farm of 13 specialized name servers technically called as “root servers”.

Keeping in view the potential risk towards stability of Internet while redesigning the root of Internet Domain Name System (DNS) it was decided that IDNs would be implemented at the application (web browser) layer. In this regards, Internationalized Domain Names in Applications (IDNA) standard was defined in 2003 and IDNA protocol was developed by IETF. Basic idea is to support non-ASCII domain names to a suitable ASCII-based form by web browsers and other user applications.  All famous web browsers like Mozilla, Netscape and Internet Explorer support IDNA.  Successful IDN test launch has been accomplished for 16 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean and Urdu.

ICANN has decided to introduce IDNs in ccTLDs regime through a fast track process which will result in introduction of IDNccTLDs before IDNgTLDs. Draft implementation plan published by ICANN consist of seven different modules addressing affiliated issues like Eligibility, Evaluation, Delegation process etc. Public comments period for the draft has recently expired and revised version would be presented and discussed during upcoming meeting at Mexico. According to ICANN’s strategic plan first country code IDN in root servers will be implemented by mid-2009. It is worth mentioning here that .پاکستان is the proposed IDN ccTLD for Pakistan.

IDNs initiative taken by ICANN is of great importance. This will not only proliferate the Internet usage but will also help in bridging the digital divide. Writing down a website name in your own official language is amazing, especially for part of the world where English is not an official language. Moreover, this would also encourage the development of websites particularly those under the IDNccTLD in local official language(s). It also provide an excellent platform to various Businesses and Government(s) to provide a complete local language web services, an example scenario could be where a user would write a website name in Urdu and the resulted web pages are also in Urdu; thus endorsing a local language browsing experience.
The second major policy initiative towards promoting openness and diversity of Internet domain name space is the introduction of new gTLDs program. Since its inception as an entity, ICANN had twice introduced application rounds for new generic top level domains. In November 2000 seven new gTLDs namely .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name and .pro were introduced; followed by six new gTLDs in December 2003 namely .cat, .jobs, .mobi, .post, .tel and .travel.

This new gTLDs program is of unique kind and is predicted as one of the biggest transformation in decades as this time ICANN has decided to open up the name space. It means that under this new gTLDs program there is no restriction against number of applicants; which could result in unlimited number of new domain names, even a small business can apply and register its own domain name. Companies could turn brands into domain names (e.g. .intel, .msn, .toyota, .pepsi etc), while individuals could register convert their names in domain name (e.g .john, .amjad, .faisal etc) and even the communities can make there presence on web via their own domain name (e.g. .hampshire, .karachi, etc). ICANN has drafted a comprehensive applicant guidebook addressing all important matters ranging from fee to evaluation criteria. The guidebook categories applications as open-gTLD application and community-based gTLD application. The draft applicant guidebook was recently under public comments period, received concerns of Internet stakeholders and public will be discussed during upcoming ICANN meeting at Mexico. ICANN plans to announce the first application round for new gTLDs by mid-2009.

Apart from above mentioned issues some of other major activities under-way at ICANN includes improving institutional confidence consultation, IP version 6 policy and DNS security extension (DNSSEC).

Implementation of IDNs and new gTLDs would certainly add a lot towards the future sketch of Internet. Enabling 1 billion non-english users showing their presence on Internet via IDNs is remarkable step. ICANN’s efforts and working with regards to subject issues are commendable. ICANN is providing an excellent opportunity to all Internet community for making their contribution towards policy making process through its public meetings, pubic comments facility and other resources. There is a vital requirement of creating awareness thus educating Internet community to understand the ICANN’s processes. Especially in the Internet developing regions, present level of participation is limited and necessary steps may be taken in this regard before they are late for reaping potential benefits of new Internet outlook.

Tech reporter with over 10 years of experience, founder of ProPakistani.PK