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ICANN Vote Paves Way for More Multilingual Internet

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The organization that coordinates the world's Internet traffic has taken a big step toward a more multilingual Web. Internet domain names are about to start speaking local languages around the world.

The non-profit corporation known as ICANN acts as a clearinghouse for Internet addresses around the world. It handles the details that make it possible to navigate the Web.

In Seoul on Friday, the ICANN board approved what it says is the biggest change of the Internet since it was invented 40 years ago.

ICANN has agreed to introduce what it calls "internationalized domain names" to the Web. Up until now, Web users have had to type Website domain names - the "dot com" - using the Roman alphabet. Country codes, too, are written in the alphabet, such as "CN" in China or "KR" here in South Korea.

Soon, speakers of non-Western languages can begin typing domain names completely in their own scripts, such as Arabic, Cyrillic or Chinese characters.

ICANN board member Roberto Gaetano views the vote as a global shift.

"This is … a cultural change," Gaetano said. "A complete different way in which certain countries will see the Internet, the possibility to open to new users that have been on the other side of the digital divide."

Another ICANN board member, Rajasekhar Ramaraj, says the vote has special significance for his native India.

"Coming from a country where we have 22 languages, this is definitely a welcome move," Ramaraj said.

Friday's vote represents only a first step. ICANN will begin by replacing two-letter country codes with native language alternatives. Replacing other domains, like the familiar "dot com" or "dot org" with native script will take longer.

Still, ICANN's chief executive officer, Rod Beckstrom, says just getting to this point is a major milestone.

"Technically, politically, globally, internationally, culturally, I mean, the amount of work that's had to go on all over this world to push this project through is quite colossal," Beckstrom said. "And to watch it actually fall over the finish line, I think, is quite an emotional moment."

Internet experts say the new domain names may open up a whole new set of challenges, as governments seek to assert sovereignty over language domains. Rebecca Mackinnon is a Hong Kong University professor who specializes in Internet governance.

"If somebody who lives in Vancouver wants to register 'dot Tibet,' what's the process for objecting to that, if the Chinese government feels that's inappropriate? And who decides what's appropriate and what's not?" Mackinnon noted.

ICANN expects country codes in non-Roman scripts start becoming available by the end of the year, and domain names will come into use next year.