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Internet overseeing organisation ICANN has created a new advisory group to cover the complex and controversial of internationalised domain names (IDNs) - domain names in foreign languages.

The new committee comprises three chairs - all ICANN Board members - and 18 experts from the around the world. Its brief will be to "promote co-ordination of IDN-related work that takes place within and outside ICANN’s supporting organisations, committees, and stakeholders".

The issue of IDNs is one that has dogged ICANN for years and remains a source of tension for the billions of Internet users that do not speak English or use the Western alphabet. Earlier efforts to add IDNs to the existing infrastructure faltered - leading to accusations that the US-led internet was prioritising Western goals over the Internet as a whole.

In response to criticism, ICANN has consistently pointed to the complexity of the task. For example, all layers of the existing internet infrastructure use Western-style ASCII text to communicate with one another. To pull in different alphabets is therefore a system-wide and system-deep issue. Also, many characters are repeated in different languages, creating the potential for clashes across the internet.

Nevertheless, the Chinese have succeeded in creating their own version of the internet that renders the internet in Chinese script. And the leading group in multi-lingualisation, MINC, has published script tables for a number of languages including Arabic that it has devised with the help of both linguists and engineers.

The new committee contains experts in all the main non-English languages, as well as industry experts from Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, VeriSign, Afilias and Tucows. It will be expected to: analyse the problem and suggests solutions; produce a list of technical barriers that ICANN will have to handle; and present policy recommendations.

The enormity of the issue was given in a presentation at an ICANN meeting in 2004 by Khaled Fattal, the chairman and CEO of MINC, who will also be on the committee.

Fattal posed the question: "How do we create a truly global internet?" There were two possible answers, he said. Either "teach English to more than 4.5 billion non-English speakers worldwide", or "multi-lingualise it fully by incorporating the languages of non-English speakers into the internet infrastructure through local empowerment".

The issue stretches even further than IDNs, Fattal argues, saying that the current internet that is frequently referred to as the "global internet" is, in reality, no more than an English intranet, albeit far bigger than current other-language intranets.

While implementation of IDNs would cover part of the problem with the existing internet system, a truly multi-lingual internet would provide the same advantages in culture, acceptance, participation and community rights that we in English-speaking countries take for granted.

The chairs of the committee will be Mouhamet Diop (CEO, Next SA), Prof Hualin Qian (Professor, Computer Information Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Paul Twomey (president and CEO, ICANN).

The members are: Pankaj Agrawala (joint secretary, Communication and Information Technology Ministry, India), Mohammed El Bashir (chairman, Sudan Internet Society), Erin Chen (internet engineer, TWNIC), Alex Corenthin (departement genie informatique, Ecole Superieure Polytechnique), Mark Davis (president, Unicode Consortium and chief software globalization architect, IBM), Michael Everson (CEO, Evertype), Patrik Fältström (member, Internet Architecture Board and consulting engineer, Cisco), Mansour Farah (senior information technology officer, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), Khaled Fattal (chairman and CEO, Multilingual Internet Names Consortium (MINC)), Hirofumi Hotta (director, Japan Registry Service(JPRS)), Pat Kane (senior product manager, Verisign), Cary Karp (president and CEO, MuseDoma), Ram Mohan (CTO, Afilias), Kraisom Pronsuthe (former permanent secretary, Information and Communication Technology Ministry, Thailand), Imad Sabouni (general manager, Syrian Telecom), Michel Suignard (Microsoft), James Woods (product manager of domains, Tucows) and Hong Xue (Asia/Australia/Pacific Region, ALAC).

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