Last October, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) approved the creation and use of internet domain names containing non-Latin characters. Met with global enthusiasm, the decision allows internet users in countries where Latin characters are not widely used—for example China, or the majority of Arab nations—to type in URL addresses using characters from their own language.
“This is only the first step, but it is an incredibly big one and an historic move toward the internationalization of the internet,” Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s president and CEO, said at the time.
Now Egypt has become one of the first Arab nations, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to register and successfully submit Arabic-character domain names to the internet’s master directory. So, what does this change mean for Egypt’s estimated 15 million internet users?
Apparently, not much.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” shrugs Ahmed Gharbeia, a 34-year-old ICT consultant. “Having non-Latin characters in the second-level domain name has been possible since 2003. The only change now is that you can have non-Latin characters in the top-level domain name. This is a very basic change; it is in no way essential.”
For the uninitiated, a second-level domain name is what comes to the left of your .com or .org, while the .com itself is the top-level domain (TLD) name. Or, as Wikipedia helpfully puts it, in “example.com”, “example” is the second-level domain name of the TLD “.com”.
In addition to the Latin-character suffix “.eg”, Egyptian website addresses can now also end with “.مصر” (“Misr”–the Arabic name for Egypt).
For some however, the change was unwelcome. “While it’s good to have more Arabic on the internet,” says Hisham Marrar, an English-language tutor and part-time computer technician, “the old way forced people, especially students, to learn some English.” Marrar points out that reliance on the internet and other technology for communication has meant that younger generations pick up on words and phrases they might not otherwise be exposed to. He also suggests that the existence of Arabic domain names might result in reluctance to experience unfamiliar, or foreign, content.
However, such a view seems to represent the minority of the minority who know of, or care about, this recent evolution in internet addresses. While a good deal of users champion the “internationalization” of the internet, and a general increase in Arabic content, most seem to share the same opinion as Gharbeia: “How much English can you really learn from a URL?”
“URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) are only symbolic,” Gharbeia says. “Besides, it’s not often that people actually type in a complete URL. Most of the times, you get to your website through shortcuts like links or bookmarks, or you type in the first letter and your browser completes the address for you.”
“I strongly support the increase of Arabic content on the internet,” says Gharbeia. “But this isn’t the best way to do it.” Instead, he argues, there needs to be better regulation and processing of the existing Arabic content. Gharbeia believes the focus should be more on computational logistics than “symbolic” domain name alterations.
Any significant change resulting from the creation of Arabic domain names will most likely occur in the fields of marketing and advertising, Gharbeia suggests.
The government, on the other hand, seems to have bigger expectations.
“Introducing Arabic domain names is a milestone in internet history,” announced Tarek Kamel, Minister of Communication and Information Technology, shortly after ICANN’s decision.
“This great step will open up new horizons for e-services in Egypt” Kamel predicted, adding his belief that the new domain names will assist in “eliminating language barriers.”
For now, internet companies such as TE Data, Link Registrar and Vodafone have begun selling Arabic-character domain names to the public, according to certain criteria. While the priority seems to have gone to institutions, large businesses, and “brand names,” according to an employee at TE Data individuals should be able to register for an Arabic domain name by October 2010 at the latest. The cost is roughly LE100 per year.
Until then, the result of the change in URL characters can be seen at www. مبارك.مصر .