Hebrew, Arabic Letters to Feature in Web Addresses

(Jewish Journal) Hebrew and Arabic letters will now feature in domain names following a decision allowing non-Latin characters in Internet addresses.

Hebrew and Arabic lettering will soon feature in website addresses in Israel and the Arab world, following a decision by the body governing domain names to allow non-Latin letters in Internet addresses.

The process of bringing new characters into domain names will begin on November 16, according to the decision by the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and could be in use by the beginning of 2010.

The approval, reached Friday after a week of meetings in the South Korean capital Seoul, is set to change Internet usage habits throughout the Middle East.

Marwan Radwan, General Manager of the Independent Palestinian National Internet Naming Authority (PNINA) said introducing International Domain Names (IDN) would increase Internet penetration and usage in the Arab world.

“Using the local characters will benefit all Internet users and especially those who can’t write in Latin letters,” he told The Media Line. “We at PNINA have been ready technically to support the IDNs for a long time.”

PNINA is also pushing for the Arabic “dot Filistin” to be recognized by ICANN as a Palestinian top-level domain.

A country code top level domain (ccTLD) designates a country, territory or region. These domains are designated by two letters such as .uk, for the United Kingdom or .ca for Canada. As of April 2005, .ps has officially become available to the public as the Palestinian suffix in cyberspace.

“We have about 300 million Arabic speakers and the penetration of the Internet is between 20% and 27%,” Radwan said. “This will make a difference for certain groups within the Arab communities, especially for younger generations who can’t access the Internet due to language barriers.”

“Introducing a complete Arabic system in the Internet will give the opportunity to surf the Internet and increase the content in the Arabic language on the Internet and also increase the educational level of the new technological inventions in Internet applications and make them available to many sectors in the Arab world,” he added.

Omer Kabir, the Technology and Internet Correspondent for the Israeli financial daily Calcalist, said the ability to use Hebrew letters will also prove beneficial.

“The obvious advantage is that it will help people who are not technologically savvy to access the web,” Kabir told The Media Line.

“Israel is one of the countries where there are already local solutions that allow you to write a domain name in Hebrew. However, this only works in Israel, and if you try to apply it in the U.S. it won’t work.”

“What’s new with the ICANN decision,” he said, “is that it’s the same technology that allows you to use non-Latin letters, but it can be accessed globally. In developed countries such as Israel, this may apply to people who do not have good English skills, such as older people or immigrants who didn’t learn English.”

Kabir said this was less relevant in Israel than in other countries, as Israelis generally have a good knowledge of English, but it could still benefit certain sectors of society.

“A good example of this is the ultra-orthodox sector where Internet usage has increased over the past year,” he said. “This is a sector that consumes a lot, but on the other hand they have poor English skills. If a commercial company can provide them with a domain name in Hebrew, it will be much easier for this population.”

Both Kabir and Radwan agreed that the first type of websites likely to take advantage of the new technology will be commercial companies.

“One type of registration is to protect trademarks of large companies in their local languages such as PalTel, or others who have trademarks around the world and they want to reserve these trademarks under the “dot filistin” in Arabic,” Radwan said.

Kabir said the technology would first be used by commercial companies who want their prospective clients to reach them quickly with minimal complications.

“Companies such as [Israeli cellphone operator] Cellcom want clients and they will do everything to attract them, so if by using Hebrew they can get to people who otherwise wouldn’t be accessible, it will make things easier for them.”

Critics of the new system say the technology will create sub-webs, alienating Internet users who do not speak certain languages. If companies purchase only non-English domain names, large numbers of Internet users could be systematically excluded.

“I think this concern is logical but isn’t justified,” Kabir said. “Domains are so cheap, and English has become so deeply rooted in them that no company will give up on a Latin domain name.”

“Domain names in other languages will be for the most part to enhance the marketing for many companies, but I don’t think large websites will be using non-Latin domains only.”

To date, domain names have been limited to the 26 characters of the Latin alphabet, as well as 10 numerals and the hyphen. The new decision will allow up to 100,000 new characters and will significantly lower the reliance of Internet usage on knowledge of the Latin alphabet. This will include 28 characters in the Arabic alphabet and 22 in the Hebrew alphabet.

ICANN hopes the new policy will make the world wide web more accessible to billions of people worldwide.

The move will be the first to stop Latin-letter dominance of the Internet since it was invented 40 years ago.

Analysts believe it will make the Internet accessible to Internet users with lower incomes and education, and make it more localized.

Countries can request a suffix in their local language, such as .ps, which is used for Palestinian websites, but non-Latin versions of .com and .org will still be limited to Latin letters for the near future.

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