The Domain Name System (DNS) discussion has expanded widely in the Global South countries in the past few years. Given DNS’s importance to the internet architecture, many stakeholders increasingly take the topic to the next level. Two of the most appealing topics are Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) and Universal Acceptance (UA). The two topics were recently discussed in an event by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) titled the Middle East Domain Name System Forum (MEDNSF) held on 18th May 2022. The Middle East region is a vibrant digital landscape with significantly growing internet users, yet has multiple challenges given its infrastructure, demographics, and language diversity. The MEDNSF brought the topics of IDNs and UA by inviting prominent speakers from various stakeholders: Emily Taylor (CEO, Oxford Information Labs), Sarmad Hussain (Senior Director, IDNs and UA Programs, ICANN), Sarika Gulyani (Chair, India Universal Acceptance Local Initiative), and Nabil Benamar (Chair, Measurement Working Group, Universal Acceptance Steering Group).
Emily Taylor started the discussion by providing interesting points from IDN Key Report in 2021. The IDN registrations experienced volatile growth compared to ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) in the past few years. Three scripts have dominated IDNs registration: Han, Latin, and Cyrillic. The Arabic script is still far behind in IDN registrations despite its significantly growing internet users. The overall number for Arabic script remains steady in statistics. However, interestingly, there is more percentage of high-quality content compared to parked domain names in Arabic compared to other scripts. It requires more efforts to identify and address specific challenges in the Arabic-speaking region by calling more stakeholders to pay more attention.
Sarmad Hussain followed the discussion by joining Taylor’s call for more efforts and awareness among stakeholders. As the internet is a global phenomenon, Hussain stated the importance of multilingual and multiscript efforts to make the internet accessible and inclusive for all. Hussain brought up a famous quote from Tim Berners Lee, “the web does not connect machines, but it connects people.” This is a reminder for all stakeholders to focus on the people connection in addressing IDNs’ problems. Hussain also mentioned that there was a need of navigation systems to be in local languages as the internet penetrates into wider audiences in the Global South.
The connection between the people is also a significant theme in the discussion, particularly on how to move the IDNs and UA forward to connect more people on the internet. Sarika Gulyani shared her experience and perspective of India in understanding the importance of IDNs and UA. India has 22 official languages with hundreds of different dialects. She also explained that India is one of the biggest data consumers and the world’s second-largest internet user base. One of the government’s initiatives was launching Digital National Identity to reach 1.2 billion people, and this requires IDNs to penetrate into local communities with different languages and scripts. Gulyani also mentioned the importance of initiatives including outreach, technical workshop, and UA-compliance inducement programs to the private sectors. Collaboration is key, especially with the state governments, national internet authorities, and academia. Now, as a result, one of the most symbolic milestones in India’s IDNs is that now the Indian national government website (india.gov.in) is available and can be accessed in different Indian scripts, not only Latin script.
Nabil Benamar also agreed on the importance of initiatives by explaining what the Measurement Working (MW) group in UA steering group has been doing in the past few years. Identity and e-Commerce platforms are two topics the group has been working on recently, particularly how to push those platforms to be more aware of IDNs and UA. Benamar also mentioned outreach as the group’s current priority by calling for more participation at the regional and national levels. Outreach initiatives have been taken in the group by reaching out to students and professors to incorporate the standardisation of IDNs in their curriculum or studies.
Furthermore, the discussion brought the challenges to be overcome by different stakeholders. Hussain mentioned that his team conducted research on how many top global websites can support the UA. The research finding shows that only 10-20 per cent of a thousand top global websites can support internationalised email addresses in non-ASCII scripts. Hussain emphasised that IDNs are not only about websites, but also email addresses. Benamar also mentioned the significance of training in addressing today’s IDNs and UA challenges. His group has already developed three modules to help the training of IDNs and UA at local level. The modules include a technical overview, technical details on the email and system administrators, and website and application programming with UA support developers.
Overall, the panel comes to the conclusion that the importance of IDNs and UA for the Middle East and Global South requires more attention and initiatives from various stakeholders. The current challenges are not impossible to overcome given how the success of the current initiatives by regional and national stakeholders. With that in mind, more attention and initiatives are needed in the Middle East and Global South. The prospect is promising, but there are still ways to go and to move forward in connecting the people on the internet.
Abid A. Adonis is a Research Assistant of Oxford Information Labs. Adonis is also a DPhil/PhD student at Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He previously graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Sciences Po, Paris, and Universitas Indonesia. His research interest includes Digital Sovereignty and the intersection of International Relations and Technology.
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