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Page last updated at 05:11 GMT, Friday, 30 October 2009

Web to be truly worldwide at last

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

Park Seung-Ja
Park Seung-Ja, in Seoul, struggles with the Western-style keyboard

The internet, we are told, has just gone truly global.

For the first time in its history, users will be allowed to create full web and e-mail-addresses using non-Latin characters.

The change has been announced by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) at its board meeting taking place in Seoul, South Korea.

According to supporters of the change, it marks a huge technological shift in the way the web works with the potential to open up access to millions of new users.

Until now, anyone wanting to set up a website has been forced to include a few characters of Latin script in the address, or domain name, that they choose.

Born in the USA

Other scripts, Arabic or Japanese for example, can be used in the first part, but whatever language is used, the address must end with a small but very important collection of Latin alphabet characters, .com, .gov, .co.uk, .cn and so on.

Without those Latin letters on the end, the website simply will not work.

The reason for the system is simple - the internet was born in the United States.

Not only is it an issue of convenience, but it's an issue of what's right, the right to express their names in their own cultural language
Rod Beckstrom, Icann President

And the Latin-script suffixes used in web-addresses have now become so internationally familiar that some internet users question the need for change.

But imagine the situation in reverse.

What if every European or North American website was forced to include a few letters of Chinese in its domain name?

Wide world

Icann's President, Rod Beckstrom, believes the change will help remove an inbuilt cultural bias at the heart of the internet's infrastructure.

"It may not be that important to you and me because we grew up in Latin-based languages," he tells me.

"But for other people who grew up in China, India or Korea, or many other places using different scripts, not only is it an issue of convenience, but it's an issue of what's right, the right to express their names in their own cultural language."

Just down the road from where the Icann board is meeting here in central Seoul, I caught up with a group of Korean pensioners, learning how to use the internet at an adult education centre.

Sixty-four-year-old Park Seung-Ja is struggling.

"It's so inconvenient and cumbersome having to keep switching to the western keyboard," she tells me.

"I'm having to go back decades to remember the English I learnt at school."

There are already some workarounds in countries like Korea with high internet use.

Language ghetto?

Using search engines in the local script allows users to find web-addresses without typing the name, and there are programs that allow users to enter addresses in their own language.

Ethernet cable, Eyewire
The technology is recognisable around the world, but not all the words

But it does not work on all computers, or for all websites, and many people believe there is an important principle at stake.

Lee Dong-bum, chief executive of a small Korean consulting firm, says he thinks he might be losing some customers who are unable to find him online.

"My customers should be able to find my company in their own language," he says.

"This is the only fair way for access to the internet to be arranged."

The change to multiple-language scripts though has not been without its critics.

There are those who worry that it might lead to a kind of ghettoisation of the internet, with language communities operating entirely within their own languages cut off from the rest of the web.

There are worries too that it will make the protection of intellectual property rights that much harder.

But the first step along the road will be a relatively small one.

At first, the change will only apply to the lesser-used group of domains known as the country codes.

These are the Web addresses with endings like .uk, .cn, or .kr, for the United Kingdom, China, and South Korea for example, and their assignment is guided by government rules in each country.

Icann says it will begin accepting the first applications for these addresses, in a number of different scripts other than Latin, from 16 November.

Eventually, all domain names should be available in multi-languages.

When that happens, supporters say, the world wide web, will finally live up to its name.



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