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ComputerWire logo VeriSign Inc on Friday announced how it intends to help overseas internet users access web sites in their own languages, but the system it introduced marks an unprecedented change to the domain name system that has some concerned, Kevin Murphy.

Some commentators said that the proprietary way VeriSign has tweaked its .com and .net name servers to allow foreign languages could open the floodgates for it or other domain registry operators to redirect web users to their own services.

The company outlined a plan to help users of non-ASCII character sets - such as speakers of Asian and Middle Eastern languages - use their own characters and languages to address web sites.

These "internationalized domain names", or IDNs, have been available for registration for over two years, and can be used to address web sites when a VeriSign-developed plug-in is installed into Internet Explorer.

On the web, browsers submit domain names into the DNS, which are then resolved into IP addresses stored in the "A" record for that domain. Ordinarily, if these servers received non-ASCII characters in an address lookup, they returned an error.

Under the system VeriSign went live with on Friday, the .com and .net servers it operates have been configured to recognize requests that are potentially IDN lookups, and answer them with an "A" record that points to a web server farm operated by VeriSign.

Those servers direct the user to a web site where they are encouraged to download an Internet Explorer plug-in called i-Nav, developed by VeriSign, which encodes all future IDNs to ASCII before submitting lookups to the DNS.

If the user declines to download the plug-in the site itself will attempt to redirect the user's browser to their intended destination. The plug-in supports .com, .net, .kr and .jp domains, whereas the site only supports .com and .net.

Chris Parente, a product manager at VeriSign Global Registry Services, said: "We're trying to take IDNs and make their resolution successful... instead of simply returning a 404 error."

In an email sent to network operators, VeriSign's Resolution Systems Operations Manager Brad Verd said the move was in response to users' frustration when they want to use IDNs but don't know why they don't work out of the box or where to get the plug-in.

The IDN system will support only the web, and only IE, although Parente said a version of the plug-in with email support will be available this month. Other applications that use DNS will have to have support built into them by their respective developers.

Some observers think introducing this kind of proprietary redirection system into the DNS is a bad thing. One pundit remarked: "Please mark this on your calendar as the day that internet marketers officially won out over internet technologists."

Domain name policy expert Bret Fausett said: "They're using their position as operator of the TLD [top-level domain] servers to trap errors... and control what response goes back to the user... I think the value of a registry just went up. Imagine trapping errors and sending a browser to a search engine, with advertising. Up until now, the registry operator has been invisible to the users. No longer."

VeriSign is not doing what Fausett suggests just yet, but the precedent may have been set. Microsoft Corp's Internet Explorer has since last summer intercepted DNS error messages and sent the user to an MSN Search page. Feasibly, a registry operator could do the same at a higher level.

VeriSign's Parente said that is not the plan. "We're just trying to help them get there," he said. "There'll come a time when all these test-bed names will be put in the zone files and none of this will be necessary."

It was not immediately clear if the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers, which has certain powers over what services registries can offer, was consulted about the new IDN system. A spokesperson was not available for comment.

© ComputerWire

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