The race to become the "central station" of the Arabic internet will begin next year, as companies and governments look to establish the .com of the Arab world, industry figures say. The majority of internet sites are hosted under the .com global top-level domain (TLD), with "dotcom" now a synonym for the internet industry. But beginning next year, the web addressing system will become internationalised and addresses will be able to be written in 22 major languages including Arabic, Chinese and Hindi.
Web addresses written in these languages will need to be attached to a TLD in the same language. But nobody knows which - if any - Arabic domain will be the dominant one. Country-level domains such as .ae, which are owned and operated by governments, will have a head start. A fast-track process will let governments set up a national domain in their own language before applications open for other parties who wish to register their own TLD.
"This means governments are going to dominate the new space for months, if not years," said Steve DelBianco, the executive director of NetChoice, an industry lobby group. "This is not the promise we have been pushing for in the past 10 years." The fast-track process for country domains begins early next year, while applications from all other parties are unlikely to be opened until at least next November.
While country-level domains will be the first to get an Arabic-language version, the success of .com over its national equivalents has shown that businesses or individuals wanting to target a broad customer base are reluctant to choose a country-specific domain. "We're doing business in the Arab world, so we need our customers to be able to reach us in Arabic," said Jaser Elmorsy, the chief executive of BlueBridge Technologies. "If they don't put .com and .net in Arabic as fast as the country-specific ones, then I'll have to register in all 20 Arab countries to protect my rights."
Registering a new TLD will be an expensive proposition, requiring a US$185,000 (Dh679,500) application fee and a $75,000 annual renewal charge. Much of the first fee covers the costs of a lengthy review process, which will evaluate the applicants ability to manage what will become a core branch of the internet. The high fee drew many complaints from prospective registrants at a public forum held on the closing day of the Icann conference in Cairo today Icann, which oversees the internet addressing system, is convening in Cairo as an outreach effort to the Arabic-speaking internet community.
But the high fee also has its supporters. Mr DelBianco said it would discourage speculative buying, where a company might register a domain such .trade purely to earn income from companies needing to ensure their brand was registered on every domain. This practice, known as defensive registration, is common among large internet businesses. The online commerce company eBay owns more than 20,000 separate internet addresses containing variants of its name, to ensure that its customers are not tricked into visiting copycat sites.
For such a business, the lure of owning .ebay is strong, and the investment required is relatively small. What is unknown is how long it will take for such a registration to be approved and implemented. Mr DelBianco is telling the companies he represents, including eBay, not to hold their breath. "There's a tiny handful of technical issues to work out, but a big basket of bureaucratic and political issues," he said. "Nobody has said how long it will take, but if there is any rule at Icann, it is that you take the promise of how long it will take, and triple it."