The Arab League hopes to operate a major Arabic online hub after structural changes to the internet, including the introduction of Arabic-language web addresses, are implemented in the coming year. The league plans to compete with domains such as ".com" and ".net" with its own ".arab" domain, registered in Arabic and Latin characters. The system that manages web addresses is undergoing its most significant change in decades, allowing the use of international scripts such as Arabic, Chinese and Hindi, and liberalising the registration process for top-level domains, such as ".org".
A side-effect of the update will be web addresses written entirely in the languages spoken by the more than one billion internet users who must now type in Latin characters to access local sites. While the internet's early adopters typically spoke a European language, demand for services in languages such as Arabic has increased significantly as the internet use becomes mainstream in the developing world.
"The next 10 million or 20 million Arab internet users will be those who do not speak English," said Baher Esmat, the Middle East relations manager of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international body that manages the addressing system. "They will want to do everything in Arabic, including the addresses." A number of regional internet portals have succeeded in attracting tens of millions of Arab users, and registering a web address in Arabic will be a logical move. But while the current web addressing system revolved around global domains such as ".com", and country-level domains such as ".ae", there will be no such central standard for websites in new languages.
Governments will have the first chance to register their national country domains in Arabic, and the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority spoke yesterday of plans to promote its ".Emirates" Arabic-language domain to sites in the region. By early next year, ICANN expects private businesses and organisations to be able to lodge applications for their own top-level domain. For addresses referring to a region or community, preference will be given to applicants with backing from official bodies, meaning the Arab League's ".arab" is likely to win out.
"An endorsement letter from the Arab League for the '.arab' domain would be valued as a good supporting statement," Mr Esmat said. ICANN has wanted to internationalise the web-address system for almost a decade, but has run into technical and procedural hurdles. One onlooker described the challenge of introducing the system as akin to replacing the foundations of a skycraper without disturbing its upper floors.
The process has also been slowed by the democratic nature of ICANN, a not-for-profit group that must include extensive community consultation and input into its decision making. Conflicting interest groups have often battled over reforms. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org