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Board opens way for new top-level domains

By Peter Sayer, IDG News Service
June 26, 2008 12:20 PM ET

IDG News Service - The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will press ahead with plans to introduce new top-level domains, including some so-called Internationalized Domain Names written in Chinese and Arabic scripts, its board decided unanimously Thursday.

ICANN began discussing extending the number of gTLDs (generic top-level domains) in 2005. Existing gTLDs include .com, .org or .biz.

Thursday's decision will not, of itself, create specific new gTLDs: The board has simply approved a policy proposal that will form the basis of a set of rules for creating and managing new gTLDs.

Until now ICANN has kept close control over the creation of TLDs, but Thursday's vote could allow the creation of as many new gTLDs as there are domain names under the .com TLD today -- over 70 million. It could open the way for big corporations to run their own domains -- france.ebay instead of, for instance -- or for linguistic communities to create transnational domains on the model of the existing .cat domain for speakers of Catalan.

"There is not currently any evidence to support establishing a limit to how many TLDs can be inserted in the root based on technical stability concerns," the board ruled, at the conclusion of a week-long public meeting of ICANN in Paris.

In reality, the limitations are more likely to be administrative than technical, said board member Dave Wodelet. ICANN must create systems for allocating the new gTLDs, and approving how they will be managed.

Susan Crawford, another board member, expressed concern about the provisions for rejecting domain names as a result of governments, on grounds of public order and morality, or Internet users, on the grounds that they were offended. She asked the board to limit such provisions as much as possible.

The board also approved the creation of a limited number of IDNs (Internationalized Domain Names) under a fast-track process for countries that urgently need them, while it continues working on a broader policy for IDNs.

The new policy could, for example, allow Chinese organizations to register domain names written using Chinese ideograms, ending with the two Chinese symbols meaning "China."

ICANN is already testing IDN TLDs to iron out technical problems. Thursday's vote is a step towards the creation of working IDN TLDs in a limited number of languages.

Putting commercial domain names in the .com TLD, Chinese names in .cn and Japanese names in .jp makes perfect sense -- if you speak English and are used to the Latin alphabet's 26 letters from A to Z. However, languages using accented letters, or altogether different scripts or writing systems, are left out in the cold. That's because the DNS infrastructure was only designed to handle ASCII characters, and not the tens of thousands of Unicode characters required to write languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi or Japanese.

ICANN has adopted a system called Punycode to encode TLDs written using Unicode characters into a sequence of letters, digits and hyphens, allowing them to be stored by existing DNS servers, but there are still some questions that remain to be resolved, a process that could take years.

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