The de facto control that the US government holds over the Internet – most bodies governing the web are based in the States – has always been controversial.
But there is another, and to date less frequently discussed, way in which the Western world has an unfair advantage in the operating of the Internet: the alphabet used in domain names.
Historically, websites originating in Arabic and Oriental countries have had no option but to use the Latin alphabet in their domain names, simply because that is the alphabet used in the Internet’s domain registry.
As many residents of such countries are about as familiar with the Latin alphabet as the average American or European is with Chinese script, this has arguably been a barrier to internet adoption outside the world of Latinate languages.
But that is about to change. The latest edition of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, IE7, is the first version to support internationalised domain names (IDNs) that can incorporate any character. And ICANN, the body that governs Internet nomenclature, announced in November 2007 that it was testing systems that would enable a localised domain naming system.
This internationalisation of the Internet poses a few problems, however. There is a danger that the standardised nature of the Internet could be sacrificed for local usability. Some critics warn of the division of the Internet into separate networks defined by language.
Another problem is that different scripts can be exploited to fool surfers into visiting sites that closely resemble legitimate sites. This technique, known as ‘spoofing’, can be used to trick people into entering personal information, such as credit card details, into forms on what they think is a trusted company’s website.
A case in point: In November, the domain name myspace.com went on sale on the online trading community eBay.com. To the untrained eye, this would appear to be the URL for the popular social networking site myspace.com, but in fact the letter ‘M’ is from the Cyrillic alphabet.
For all the rhetoric about how the Internet is flattening the globe and bringing distant cultures closer together, making the World Wide Web truly international is proviing decidedly difficult.
Even ICANN’s director Paul Twomey is trepidatious: “If we get this wrong we could very easily and permanently break the Internet,” he said recently.