The annual ICANN Middle East DNS Forum facilitates conversations around the latest developments in the global domain marketplace, as they relate to the Middle East region. The discussion on the final day of the forum on 7th April 2021, illustrated the benefits of utilising IDNs for the Arabic script as well as other language scripts. It also showcased some solutions to some of the more complex problems we may encounter when using IDNs.
Increasing linguistic diversity on the internet should be of interest to us all, but as we have documented in the IDN World Report, progress in achieving Universal Acceptance (UA) remains frustratingly slow. The Arabic script across different regions has specific rules and variations. Ali Alhoshaiyan from the Communications & Information Technology Commission of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia presented some of the complications that may arise.
Arabic script, which is written from right to left, contains letters that take a different form depending on where they are located in a word. These positional shapes can change if the letter is at the beginning, the middle or the end of the word, and have different joining rules. For example, the sound we associate with “buh,” is ب in Arabic, but can look different depending on where it is positionally in a word. This is an example of ب in each position of a word: ب بل لب It can also sound different depending on variations of the same letter and can look different depending on how and who is writing it. These apply to most of the 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. Around 25 countries claim Arabic as their official or co-official language according to Babbel in 2019, and there are an estimated 313 million Arabic speakers who use different regional variations of the script. Variants can arise when an interpretation of the “same” label in a script appears in IDNs. Defining such variations can be a difficult process, and indeed the management of the variation labels to determine what can be included in Top Level Domains (TLDs) and what is not. A shared set of rules that works consistently across all Arabic script languages is an essential foundation for guaranteeing the uniqueness and universality of every domain name.
Sarmad Hussain Senior Director IDN & UA Programs at ICANN introduced some of the solutions to the complexities of IDNs using the Arabic Script. By bringing together experts from diverse Arabic-speaking communities to agree on a set of variants, the ICANN team were able to bring these definitions together in order to implement the process into an integrated Root Zone Language Generation Rules (RZ-LGR) system. In addition, the management of TLDs through a set of recommendations, was integrated into a report on IDN Variant TLD Implementation in 2019. By providing solutions to these complications, usability will be enhanced worldwide by facilitating a comfortable linguistic environment for those native speakers. Security will also be improved, as issues with variants can cause some security problems such as phishing emails.
The IDN World Report 2020 was presented by Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Information Labs. She reviewed the adoption rates of IDNs, as well as discussing other issues relating to Universal Acceptance. The total number of IDNs decreased by 8% when compared to the previous year but generally, the rate of IDNs has been steadily growing year on year. One of the key findings of the IDN World Report was that the geographical distribution of IDN registrations matched the script you would expect across script and language groups. Scripts used in IDNs are also a strong signal of the language used in the web content associated with the IDNs. Whereas overall, the primary language of web content is still English and with a majority percentage of English language sites, the language of web content associated with IDNs are more diverse than that associated with ASCII domains. Lack of Universal Acceptance of the usage of IDNs may be some of the reasons for this. There also seems to be a lack of awareness of IDNs amongst the end user.
In addition, research done by Oxford Information Labs to evaluate full stack email systems for UA adherence revealed some difficulties in relation to UA and the sending, receiving and replying to emails in an environment that supports email address internationalisation.
Arabic script IDNs have experienced a general steady growth across the region although registration levels are still comparatively low. There are high levels of IDNs suspected to be parking, however when comparing the parked content or looking exclusively at the high quality content, the use of Arabic script domain names sees a high proportion in the high quality content category (70%) according to the IDN World Report.
Despite the difficulties which can arise, IDNs help to enhance linguistic diversity in cyberspace and make the internet environment more comfortable for end users around the world. However, Universal Acceptance remains to be a challenge. Further discussions in forums such as the Middle East DNS Forum, collaboration and analysis in reports such as the IDN World Report can support solutions to the difficulties relating to IDNs.
Emily Taylor is the CEO of Oxford Information Labs. She is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and is the Editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy and co-founder of ICANN accredited registrar, Oxford Information Labs.
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