Internet domain names have always been written using the Latin alphabet – regardless of the content of the website. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and all other websites written in languages that do not use the Latin alphabet are forced to use a latin domain name to refer visitors to their website.
To a number of people, this is a concern because they feel that the requirement for someone to type the domain name using a foreign language acts as a barrier of entry into potential internet users that have no knowledge of any language that uses the Latin alphabet. The argument goes that such users would be more likely to use the internet if they were able to type the URL of websites they desire to visit using their native alphabet instead.
Another issue with the Latin alphabet is that it is not always capable of properly spelling a word of another language, and even when it is capable of doing so, several possible spellings may be correct, so the users will have a hard time guessing the “correct” spelling of the URL. For example, Aljazeera is usually spelt this way, but typing it down as Al-Jazirah or Eljazira would be an acceptable spelling by many Arabic speakers.
ICANN, the body responsible for regulating domain names worldwide, has been working for about a decade now on “Internationalized Domain Names” (IDNs), which will enable countries to have country-specific domain names that are written in any of the native languages of the country. The decision to use IDNs was finally approved last year and it is now possible for countries to apply to have such domain names. Applications are now in progress for Russia, China, Egypt, Saudi, UAE, Qatar, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, and a few other countries as well.
I am not fully convinced about the actual need for having domain names in non-latin characters. I do not understand how someone is expected to use the internet without having to know how to at least just read Latin characters. You don’t need to know English to use the internet, but you need to know how to type the letters to send an email to another person because all email addresses currently are written using Latin characters. Of course the availability of IDNs would mean that you can have full email addresses which are written in non-latin characters, but imagine having an email address that can only be written in a language other than English – so even if you have a friend living abroad who does not have a keyboard that supports his native language, then he wouldn’t be able be able to send an email to you. Accessing websites from abroad would also be problematic, but at least with websites, you can have alternative URLs which are not as difficult to manage as alternative email addresses.
The choices for prefixes for such domain names seem worrying as well, while currently, most generic domain name prefixes such as .com and .net are very short, and country code domain names are even shorter such as .uk, .jp, and .om, most of the Arabic IDNs have the whole country name in Arabic as the prefix. So Saudi will use the Arabic word for Saudi as part of any Arabic domain name it issues, and the word Saudi in Arabic is made up of eight characters. So just imagine how long the domain names would be.
It does not seem that Oman has made a request to ICANN to have its own IDN. I do not think that the use of the Latin alphabet in domain names is a major concern in Oman because English is taught as the second language in the country. I think it is a good thing to give people choices, but I think the complexities associated with introducing an IDN in Oman should be carefully studied before going ahead with it.
This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.