Small-minded Mozilla mocked by wider world
Firefox disables IDNs
An exuberant Mozilla Foundation has been brought back down to earth with a bang by the world's internet organisations.
Flushed with the success of its Firefox browser, the Foundation has clearly come to believe it is an important voice in the internet community. But following a hasty decision regarding the resolving of Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs), it has been publicly criticised by the groups representing domain registries in both Europe and Asia, as well as the US-based internet overseeing organisation ICANN.
The issue stems from a security warning over IDNs, in which a group of so-called security experts at Shmoo.com "discovered" a problem which the rest of the internet community had been aware of for several years and created guidelines to deal with it.
Put simply, the method by which the English-based domain name system is expanded to encompass different languages from around the world provides a window of opportunity for others to mislead people. By using numbers and letters similar to others, it is possible to make people think that a domain they click on is in fact a different one.
The simplest and clearest example comes within the English language itself - a lower-case "L" can look exactly the same as an upper-case "i". And to stretch it further, the numeral "1" can be made to look like both.
With IDNs this potential for confusion is increased as domains are rendered in different nationalities' own languages. To get from one language to another, more additional numerals and letters are added. Thanks to add-ons within browsers these strange combinations are rendered into decipherable letters. But at the same time, a strange combination can be used to give a misleading impression. Shmoo managed to create an apparent link to "www.paypal.com" that actually went to its own domain.
Unfortunately, within a week Mozilla decided that the only solution was to decide to disable support for IDNs. It was a short-term solution to "protect our users", the foundation said, and it made it clear what would need to change in order to support to be restored: "If people want to see full, unrestricted IDN back in Mozilla and Firefox, the best way is to put pressure on the world's registrars and registries to fulfil their obligations to their customers - both domain owners and internet users - and commit to implementing the ICANN guidelines."
The world's registrars and registries didn't agree. CENTR - the Council of European National TLD Registries - called Mozilla's post a "hasty ill-considered response". Centr represents "over 98 per cent of domain registrations worldwide" and "believes such strong reactions are heavily detrimental to the effort to introduce non-English languages and scripts to the internet, and could have lasting repercussions on the ongoing effort to internationalise the DNS".
Not to be outdone, the APTLD - the Asia Pacific Top Level Domain Association - also piled in. "This has led to some browser providers announcing that they intend to disable IDNs in future releases. We believe the information that they have relied on is misleading which has led to inappropriate action."
And just to finish off, ICANN put out a statement saying it was "concerned about the implementation of countermeasures that may unnecessarily restrict the use and availability of IDNs".
All in all, everyone seems to think that a browser cutting off the rest of the world because of a potential security problem that is already well-known is, well, small-minded. But it has gone ahead with the disabling of IDNs anyway, releasing a "security update" this morning for Firefox which disables IDN resolution.
The fact is however that browsers could - and will - be a major driving force in making IDNs work without security concerns. Everyone needs a browser to access the Internet and despite the fact that it remains difficult for North Americans to understand that the rest of the world speak different languages, if they wish to remain in the market, browser manufacturers need to actively work towards incorporating different-language domains.
One knowledgeable expert has suggested that if browsers display an icon when they are resolving international domains, then people will learn to understand that if they think they are visiting an English site, everything may not be quite kosher. That's just one small example. There are plenty more that have been thought out by experts and carefully written down. You can find the main two here [JET] and here [ICANN].
The real scandal is that despite numerous very intelligent people working on this problem, and despite the fact that a multi-lingual internet is an inevitability, the industry has still to get on, work together and come up with a widespread, accepted solution. You have to wonder whether the same delays would result if it was a technical issue that affected US internet users.
Mozilla's naive, parochial stance may have helped people finally get their acts together but it has done so as the cost of its own standing. ®