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ICANN Moves Ahead with International Domains

At some point in early 2010, the world will see the first full domain names in a non-Latin based alphabet.

The first Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) for use as country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are now being considered as part of the process begun in November by Internet governance organization ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

The process by which IDNs for the ccTLDS will be granted by ICANN is now underway, with the first applications submitted. It's not yet clear which country or language will be the first IDN, though each new IDN granted will represent a milestone for the language and country represented. While some have raised concerns over the safety of IDNs, ICANN is taking steps to minimize any potential spoofing or phishing related risks.

"So far we have received 16 applications, and they are spread across six different languages," Tina Dam, senior director of IDNs at ICANN, told InternetNews.com.

Dam declined to provide specific details on which countries and organizations have applied for IDNs in which languages. She noted that ICANN needs to provide confidentiality to all applications until they have been evaluated, at which point they will be made public.

All the requests for an IDN for a ccTLD are submitted by either a national government or from an agency that has support of the national government for the domain that is being requested.

The process by which the 16 applications are now proceeding to approval involves multiple steps.

"The first step is they send in the request and we evaluate it, which is pretty much me going through the request, checking that everything is right," Dam said. "We then send the application to a technical panel that will check for any problems that they might find."

The technical panel is done by six experts outside of ICANN with IDN expertise. After the technical panel review, the names of applicants and their corresponding IDN requests will be published by ICANN. The next key step is an ICANN board vote. Prior to the board vote, Dam said there are some additional technical evaluation steps, including checking name servers and IDN management.

It's not clear yet when the first IDNs will be approved.

"I've always said we'd see the first IDNs in early 2010, and now it's very early in 2010," Dam said. "It really does depend on the applicant. As soon as we're through the technical panel, it's really up to them (the applicants). If the application is really complete it could go very fast. We've said early 2010 because we think some then will be fast and very complete."

IDN Security

One potential issue that has been raised is the potential risk from spoofing. With an IDN, characters could potentially be translated via Unicode in a way that could lead to a domain spoofing issue. It's a concern that ICANN has already taken steps to address.

"We do have security measures in place dating all the way back to 2005," Dam said. "We put in place a requirement that you can't mix scripts, so you can't mix Latin and Cyrillic, for example."

The other factor working in ICANN's favor to help mitigate risk is that the IDNs are only being given out to ccTLDs that have government support.

Dam noted that there is still a risk, but it's the same spoofing risk that can exist with Latin-based characters as well, though ICANN is keeping an eye on the issue.

"When you go from 37 characters (A-Z and 0-9) and you move to Unicode, which has about 100,000 characters, of course there will characters that look the same," Dam said. "By making sure that the top levels look different, we're trying to prevent risk. Just like we have the 0 and the O that look the same, there will be things that look the same."

Who Will Be First?

With the process now underway to approve the first IDNs for ccTLDs, one big milestone will be awarded to the language and country that is the first to be approved.

"A lot of countries have been excited to be first ones up, but there are so many countries in preparations where this will be a really big thing for them and all will be great milestones," Dam said. "There are big nations, small nations, it's going to mean different things and they'll all be big milestones this year."