Middle Eastern internet professionals are gathering in Cairo this week to discuss the most significant change to the structure of the internet since its inception. A meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the governing body that oversees the internet addressing system, will introduce a new method that will enable full website addresses to be written in scripts such as Arabic, Chinese and Hindi.
"It is an enormous opening up of the real estate of the internet, and a genuinely new way for people to be able to express themselves," said Paul Levins, an executive of Icann. The UAE plans to be one of the first countries to take advantage of the new system, with Mohammed al Zarooni, who heads the .ae Domain Administration, representing the country at the Icann meeting. Icann holds three consultative meetings each year that bring together those with an interest in the development of the internet, ranging from industry professionals to governments, user groups and civil society. More than 800 Middle-Eastern delegates will attend the Cairo meeting, joining about 400 industry insiders who attend each meeting for technical and policy discussions.
Internet addresses are limited to the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet, and all must be based either in one of 21 global top-level domains, such as .com or .net, or in country-level domains, such as .ae, that are administered by authorities in each country. But in reforms that have been almost a decade in the making, Icann approved a system this year that will internationalise web addressing, allowing addresses to be written in major international languages, and new top-level domains to be registered by organisations and individuals.
This will allow businesses to host websites with both English and Arabic addresses, and even to register their business name as an Arabic-language, top-level domain. "It is the combined effect that will have a powerful impact on the way people use the internet," said Mr Levins. "Ten years ago, who would have thought of Facebook or Myspace? This has the potential for another leap in innovation. Who knows what the interaction of the world's languages is going to do for expression?"
While the majority of online businesses cluster around the .com domain, there will be no equivalent in new languages such as Arabic - although the opportunity exists for a smart entrepreneur to build a brand around such a domain. "We are used to talking about .com for historic reasons. But with the new process, there are going to be a lot more options for people," said Tina Dam, the head of the international domain names programme at Icann. "If there is a lot of new domains registered in a local language, I don't think there will be one that is central any more."
The first round of registrations for new Arabic-language addresses will begin next May, with the industry expecting a rush as whole new frontiers of the internet are opened up. "The big discussion at this meeting is, have we got the thinking behind the implementation right?," Mr Levin said. Unlike registering a traditional web address, such as thenational.ae, registering an entire top-level domain, such as .national, will be an expensive and time-consuming process. As the new domain will become part of the fundamental addressing system of the internet, all applications will go through heavy technical, commercial and legal scrutiny.
Significantly, they cannot cause harm to what Icann calls "morality and public order", a term that all agree is open to a large degree of interpretation. An arbitration panel set up by the International Chamber of Commerce will make judgements on the issue, using a panel of jurists from around the world. email@example.com