x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Internet lords prepare to untangle web they wove

Feature The internet about to undergo the most fundamental change yet since the inception of the world wide web.

A  browser logs on at an Abu Dhabi internet cafe: changes to web addresses could result in string of Hindi characters separated by dots, or a link to a site such as
A browser logs on at an Abu Dhabi internet cafe: changes to web addresses could result in string of Hindi characters separated by dots, or a link to a site such as "thenational.newspaper".

A web address today is instantly recognisable to the world's more than 1.6 billion internet users, beginning with the familiar "http://" and ending in a suffix such as ".com" or ".ae". But all of that is about to be altered as the internet undergoes its most fundamental structural change since the inception of the world wide web. Soon, a web address could be a string of Hindi characters separated by dots, or a link to a site such as "thenational.newspaper". The changes will help to internationalise and liberalise what is already one of the world's most inclusive and democratic systems. It is available equally to all, based on common standards that anyone can participate in and governed by consensus through a loose international coalition of volunteers and elected managers. And while to the casual user the web seems to "just work", behind the scenes is a hive of international co-ordination and deal making, working around the clock to hold the internet's complex structure together. At the heart of the internet are 13 "root" servers, which act as the central directory of the web. Every web page has a unique internet protocol (IP) address, much like a phone number, and guidance from these servers allows the web browser to convert a request for "www.thenational.ae" into a search for the right page, located at Converting a human-language request into a machine-readable number involves moving across the web address from right to left, beginning with the final suffix. In the case of the address above, information from the root server would point the browser to a directory of all pages ending in ".ae", which would then point onward to "thenational," and so on. The root server system is a core foundation of the internet and historically the sites containing physical root servers were tightly guarded, as a co-ordinated attack against all 13 could bring the web undone. Such a threat has been greatly reduced in recent years by distributing virtual copies of each root server across hundreds of locations. Maintaining the information in the root servers and holding together the system that connects them to the global network of internet providers and web hosts is a primary task of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Founded in 1998, ICANN manages the internet's addressing system, so it wields significant influence over the direction of the web. The body is introducing two major reforms that represent the biggest changes to the addressing system since its inception. First, the system is being internationalised, enabling web addresses to be written in 22 different scripts, including Arabic, Korean and Japanese. Secondly, it is being opened up, allowing the registration of thousands of new top-level domains such as ".com", in all the new languages being supported. The result will be a web that is more diverse and decentralised than ever before. Until today, the bulk of websites clustered around a handful of domains such as ".com" and all were written in a common script. In the future, sites will scatter to thousands of specialised domains and many web addresses will be indecipherable to those who cannot read the many languages supported by the system. The reforms will also open up vast new tracts of digital land, which will be snapped up by the online equivalents of globetrotting speculators and eager first-home owners. There is a thriving market for valuable internet domain names; "www.horse.ae" was recently sold to a UAE horse lover for Dh6 million (US$1.6m). As well as the increasing number of internet users who want to navigate the web in their own language, the launch of entirely new domains will be met with a rush to grab the prime addresses. Mohammed Gheyath, the executive director for technology development affairs at the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), told a forum in Abu Dhabi this week that the UAE hopes to turn its Arabic-language equivalent of ".ae" into a major hub for the Arabic internet. Similar plans are afoot at the Arab League, which intends to register ".arab" and turn it into a pan-regional web destination. While the potential for Arabic addressing is significant, the real explosion is expected among the internet communities in India and China, home to almost half of the world's internet users. China has already introduced a limited version of the system, allowing users to type web addresses in Chinese script, although the system has many limits. When Chinese becomes integrated into the core of the web addressing system, the country's booming internet industry will quickly shift its addressing into the local language, with international companies looking to break into the market sure to follow. While demand for local-language web addresses will be high, becoming the new Arabic version of ".com" will not be easy. Registering a whole new domain, in Latin characters or any other language, will be nothing like the cheap, simple process of registering a sub-domain today. In opening the web to whole new languages and domains, ICANN is modifying the way the system works, making serious changes to the root servers that guide the network. The current system for registering sub-domains has become fertile ground for speculators, conmen and shady dealers, who built entire businesses on registering thousands of websites each day. ICANN has no intention of seeing the new top-level domain registration system exploited in the same way. To begin with, applicants need to put down a $185,000 application fee and follow it up with a detailed proposal for how they will manage the domain and register new web addresses under it. ICANN is looking for organisations with the technical and managerial ability to take responsibility for a whole new portion of the internet, one that could become every bit as important as ".com" is today. Speculators need not apply. tgara@thenational.ae