• United States

IETF ponders internationalized e-mail

Nov 24, 20034 mins
Internet Service ProvidersNetworking

* The knotty issue of supporting non-English language characters in e-mail addresses

The Internet Engineering Task Force held a preliminary discussion in Minneapolis earlier this month about developing a standard mechanism for supporting non-English language characters in e-mail addresses – a major issue for Internet users in Europe and Asia.

Any solution to the internationalized e-mail dilemma that the IETF develops will impact global ISPs, e-mail service providers and multinational corporations that need to support non-English speaking employees and customers.

Today’s e-mail protocols use the English language-based ASCII standard and do not support the correct spelling of corporate and individual names in many other languages. Fixing this problem would require changes to e-mail systems as well as to software that use e-mail addresses.

The standards-setting body has received two proposals for solving this knotty problem:

* One proposal, dubbed IMAA for Internationalized Mail Addressed in Applications, uses encoding and translation techniques to turn foreign language characters into ASCII for transmission over today’s e-mail systems.

* The other proposal requires more changes to the e-mail infrastructure to replace the ASCII characters with internationalized UTF-8 characters.

The IMAA proposal is considered a quick fix that would require few changes to e-mail applications or other Internet applications that use e-mail addresses. However, IMAA would result in strange characters being visible to end users who do not update their e-mail clients to support the protocol. Specifically, end users would see nonsensical characters in the “from” line when they receive e-mail from foreign language users who have already upgraded to IMAA-compliant e-mail systems.

“There would be ugliness in the ‘from’ category,” admits Paul Hoffman, director of the Internet Mail Consortium and co-author of the IMAA draft document. “An end user might think it’s spam. But that would be an easy fix in the e-mail client.”

The alternative proposal would produce a cleaner solution in the e-mail user interface, but it would require updating all e-mail standards and applications to be able to understand UTF-8. If e-mail recipients don’t upgrade their systems to support UTF-8, e-mail addressed to them will bounce.

One advantage of the IMAA proposal is that it uses the same encoding and normalization techniques used in the standards that the IETF adopted last year for internationalized domain names. However, many IETF engineers consider this standard “a hack” and instead advocate cleaner technical solutions to the complex problem of internationalizing an Internet infrastructure that was originally based on the English language.

John Klensin, a former chair of the Internet Architecture Board and a long-time leader in the IETF, advocates changing the e-mail infrastructure to support internationalization. Klensin wrote the draft of the alternative proposal to IMAA.

“We need to decide if we want a multi-lingual Internet with English as one language or an English language Internet with some capability for handling other scripts,” Klensin says. “We need to decide if we want to fully internationalize the e-mail system or if we want a kludge.”

Klensin is against proposals that would require non-English speaking Internet users to have to communicate with each other in English. As an example, he points to a Chinese Internet user who has to translate his name into an English language approximation in order to send e-mail to another Chinese speaking user.

“My belief is that if we don’t deal with the localization problem well, systems will be deployed that are localized and incompatible with each other and globally,” Klensin adds.

The IETF will continue its discussion of possible solutions for internationalized e-mail, but participants are expecting the protocol development process to take several years.

“Nothing we do is going to take a couple of months,” says Pete Resnick, a Qualcomm engineer who led the IETF’s recent discussion. “It’ll be three years at best after we get done agreeing on an approach.”

EDITOR’s NOTE: Due to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday we will be sending just one newsletter this week. Regular service will resume next week. We wish you and your family a happy Thanksgiving.