If you speak Mandarin, you can e-mail your friends using the Chinese alphabet and read articles on the Web in Chinese. But one thing you can't do is type a full Internet address — a URL — using Chinese characters. The same is true for many other languages.
That's because the tail end of domain names — the .com, .edu or .org — can only be written in the standard Latinate alphabet using the letters A to Z. But that's about to change.
The standard is shifting so that a URL can exist entirely in other native languages.
"Over half of the 1.6 billion users of the Internet today are born in a language group that does not use Latin scripts," says Rod Beckstrom, the president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — a global agency that establishes the standards and policies for domain names. "So for them, this is a very, very big deal because they've had to type in their keyboard in their native script — for example in a word processor or something else — and then switch modes to type a domain name, which is really quite an inconvenience."
Beckstrom tells host Michele Norris that ICANN will accept applications for the new internationalized domain names starting on Nov. 16. He says the first rollout of the new domain names will be as early as mid-2010.
Beckstrom says the origin of this major change dates to 1996 when a researcher in Switzerland grew tired of not being able to type German letters for domain names. The internationalized domain names will enable the use of 100,000 characters, he says.
But what happens with Arabic? Will the URL be written from right to left? Beckstrom says it's an issue they still have to look into.
"One of the reasons it's taken so long to work this through the policy system is that there's been a desire to reduce the opportunities for cybercrime," Beckstrom says. Online "phishing" scams — when users are deceived by a domain name that appears in an e-mail or a link — was one of the biggest concerns.
He says the agency plans to approve only top-level domain names — such as .com or .org — that don't confuse users. There will also be guidelines for the second-level domains — the name that appears to the left of the period.
About half of the pages people navigate to on the Web now are found through search engines, Beckstrom says. Internet users will still be able to search in English for an international domain name. If, however, users opt to type the URL into their browser, they'll have to know how to switch their keyboard into a different language or script.