Internationalized Domain Names: Internet Boon or Bane?
On October 29, 1969, a message was sent from one computer in UCLA to another computer at Stanford, launching the beginning of the Internet age. On October 30, 2009, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the non-profit agency responsible for managing the assignment of Internet Domain names announced that within two weeks, it will allow the first complete Internet domain names containing non-Latin characters by approving the Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) Fast Track Process. Initially, this change will apply only to ccTLD or Country Code, Top Level Domain names, so for example, .cn for china will be written in Chinese characters and the .ru in Russia will be written in Cyrillic. However, over time, ICANN will expand this to generic .com extensions not specific to a country, and standardize internet domains in non-Latin scripts overall. This will provide people who do not use the Latin script as their primary script equal opportunity access to the Internet, such as those in Russian-speaking, Arabic-speaking, and Chinese-speaking countries.
It would seem initially that the ICANN announcement is great news. This will allow more differentiation and localization of the Internet. Internet users will now be able to use their native languages that are not based on Latin scripts to not only to read the content of the websites, but also to enter the Internet Addresses. Additionally, this will allow for companies that operate in places where the dominant script is not Latin based to localize their advertisements and create unique website addresses that have a full local look and feel to them, without inserting foreign looking Latin script. Although the initial plan for ICANN will only involve having foreign language extensions of the country and the full non-Latin script Web Addresses will not be standardized by ICANN for a few years, the plan is in motion and this article assumes that it will eventually happen.
Nevertheless, even with all of its positive values, there are negative effects of this proposition as well. A technical issue with the IDNs is that a person who is visiting an Internet cafe in a different country that doesn't use his or her native script might run into difficulties in finding a method for entering Internet Addresses using the local keyboard. There is a big assumption in the success of the IDNs, and that's every computer system in the world will be able to support every single script that an IDN can be entered in. Another sub-assumption is that there will be an alternative Internet Address a user will be able to enter using Latin letters to get to the same website, and that the person will have to remember that address in case he or she cannot have access to the native language keyboard.
This change will also create much more opportunities for hackers to mislead unsuspecting Internet Users. Currently, while only Latin based letters are allowed in Internet Addresses, hackers have a limited number of website tricks they can use. For example, a hacker can create a website that looks like a popular website such as paypal.com and create a fake one by replacing the "L" with an uppercase "I" while maintaining a similar look and feel to the site. This allows hackers to steal people's personal information, and to engage in other illegal activities. By introducing IDNs, ICANN will be opening up a Pandora's Box of a multitude of similar scripts that will be able to fool unsuspecting users even more and give hackers more opportunities to wreak havoc on people lives.
If you're reading this far, you're undoubtedly wondering what this has to do with you, an aspiring attorney. I'm glad you asked! IDNs could present a number of legal issues as well. One of the requirements that ICANN has instituted for the IDNs, is that the language of the Internet Address must be an official language in a country or territory where it is located, or have legal status there, or in the alternative, serve as a language of administration. What about languages that are not represented by a government for political or religious reasons? How about languages that are flat-out suppressed? It would seem that by allowing IDNs to come into being, ironically, instead of allowing some people to truly become global net-izens, they will instead face the same type of discrimination they were facing previously, instead now it will be under the guise of an internationally neutral format. This is especially dangerous because this creates more of an illusion of equality, than actual equality for the most repressed people. Sure, with this new IDN system, speakers of Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi will be able to proudly have their native language represented in IDNs, but what about linguistic minorities, who live in countries that speak those languages, but do not identify primarily with that language? They will be left on the sidelines of linguistic plurality on the Internet if their native tongue is not sufficiently recognized by the state.
Another potential problem with IDNs will be an increase of headaches for Trademark owners. There is already a bevy of legal disputes involving legal ownership of websites. For example, in 2002, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) found that the Queen of England could not appropriate www.newzealand.com, which was at the time registered to a private American company, just because she was the Monarch under whose dominion the country of New Zealand fell. The Government of New Zealand was required to pay around half a million U.S. dollars to acquire the address for its own use. This is what happens when only 26 letters are involved in Internet Address disputes. I can only imagine what will happen when over 100,000 characters will be up for debate. Countless countries and companies will buy and barter over web domain names and eventually, various parties and trademark owners, utilizing various scripts, cultural mores, and who knows what else will contribute to the great din of International Intellectual Property disputes. Trademark owners will need to worry and keep track of dozens of scripts in which their company name or product can be represented, and international and national legal authorities will need to decide what bearing does the usage of a particular script or language in that country have on who is deemed the rightful owner of a an Internet Address.
On November 16th, of this year, just a few days from today, the first step of IDNs, will be implemented by ICANN. What will follow is a multiyear process of making the Internet more internationalized by creating more IDNs. Will this process create a better, more connected world, or will it wreak havoc on all those who use the Internet? The jury is still out on this question, but if you ask me, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle, and while this seems like a good idea at first blush, the Devil, as we often see in Law, lies in the details.