Friday, July 8, 2011

A revolution for Egypt's domains

Web users have grown familiar with the internet's many top-level domains (TLDs) - such as the geographic .uk and .ru, and the generic .com and .net.
The latter category in particular has grown rapidly with the addition of extra variants including .biz and .net, as well as the soon to launch .xxx - intended as the must-have suffix for any sex industry website.
Some industry watchers argue that domain names have less importance in today's world of social-network sharing.
Others believe that a good URL means as much to a website as a prestigious street address does to a top department store - it is a sign of status, power and success.
While domain options have increased substantially, until recently countries that use non-Latin characters were at a disadvantage.
Websites have always been able to display other types of script, such as Chinese or Arabic, in the body of their pages, but no such options were available for TLDs.
The usual answer to this was a vague, cobbled-together approximation.
Then in May 2010, the organisation responsible for administering domain names - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) - announced that it planned to enable non-Latin scripts, starting the roll-out of Arabic across Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Now, instead of users in Egypt having to use .eg at the end of each address, they could now type the equivalent in Arabic script.
Even more revolutionary, Arabic domains could now be written as always intended - from right to left.
Over a year since their inception, the early effects of these non-westernised domains are becoming apparent.
George Victor, from the Egyptian National Telecom Regulatory Authority, told Click from the BBC World Service about the impact in his early-adopting country.
"We believe that this is a great step that will open new horizons for many e-services in Egypt, and it will have its direct impact, enlarging the number of online users," he said.
Mr Victor argues that using Arabic characters in domains creates a more inclusive, trusted network, bringing a new audience that had previously shied away because of the unfamiliarity of western scripts.
"Having a domain name in your own language is a point of having a local identity," he said.
"When talking about Arabic domain names, we are talking about having users which are not online now. People with languages disabilities - people who are having language as a barrier to connect online."
As well as the traditional attachment to Arabic lettering, the new domains also bring some practical solutions for an ongoing issue in web communication - the nuance of language.
"People in Egypt now are inventing a new language called 'Franco-Arab' language," explains Mr Victor, referring to how some Arabic words are adapted into western characters, losing some meaning - not to mention history - along the way.
Masthead for Al-Ahram newspaper
There is only one spelling of Al-Ahram in Arabic, but several ways in English
"This means that, if possible, the chance to write in Arabic characters, it will be much better because they will understand each other much better in their homeland country language - in Arabic language."
In the case of one of Egypt's biggest newspapers, Al-Ahram, Arabic script for URLs means added clarity.
Al-Ahram, which translates to The Pyramids can be written in several different ways.
"So people will have to guess whether Al-Ahram is El or Al," said Mr Victor.
"If we look at Arabic domain names, it's only one option.
"Arabic domain names will eliminate this type of confusion for the internet users."
Mr Victor does not believe that Egypt's Arabic domains played any part in the country's revolution earlier this year.
But he does say that the ability to provide information about the "new" Egypt to those who need it in a language they trust and understand cannot be overestimated.
"When we start to have constitution amendments we created a website with an Arabic domain name."
Earlier this month, Icann further opened the floodgates when it announced custom suffixes for domains. Now, anything from .bbc to .starbucks are up for grabs at a price of around £150,000 each.
This new addition will also apply to the non-Latin domains - which have now been rolled out to extra languages such as Tamil, Thai and Japanese. It may lead to domain-name combinations limited only by the bounds of modern language.

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