The launch of Arabic domain names has been hailed as a milestone. But a milestone to where, asks Amira Howeidy
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates now have a green light, as well as the technical ability, to allow their citizens to type a domain name in their browsers in Arabic. Not a single Latin character need be included.
The virtual world's main operator, ICANN (The International Consortium for Assigned Names and Numbers) has hailed the development as a "milestone" in Internet history.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the first Internationalised Domain Names (IDN) country code (cc) TLDs to appear online as a result of the IDN ccTLD "Fast Track Process", approved by the ICANN Board last October. TLDs are the country codes reflected in the domain name of an address, such as .eg for Egypt. Only now that .eg can be .مصر, Egypt's Arabic TLD.
So far, ICANN has received a total of 21 requests for IDN ccTLDs, representing 11 languages.
Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Tareq Kamel made the announcement on 6 May in a media hyped press conference during which he declared the development a "great step" that will open "new horizons for e-services in Egypt". He promised it will boost the number of online users in Egypt and enable Internet services to penetrate new markets by eliminating language barriers.
Three companies -- Vodafone Data and Internet service providers TeData (owned by the incumbent operator, Telecom Egypt) and the privately-owned Link.net -- have been accredited by the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) to be registrars for Egyptian IDN ccTLDs. The government will receive three per cent of Egypt's Arabic ccTLD revenues through the three registrars. ICANN will not be receiving revenues, for now at least. The non-profit, California-based organisation initially wanted to charge registries -- the NTRA in Egypt's case -- $26,000 upon application. But because there was no consensus inside the ICANN community to force registries to pay it was left to the registry to decide.
According to Ahmed Osama, TeData's managing director, registration for the new ccTLDs will open commercially by the end of May. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that companies will be given a "grace period" of three to six months to apply for domain names, after which the process will be opened up to individuals. Registration procedures, which Osama promises will be "as automated as possible", will be announced by the end of May.
Arabic ccTLDs are only half the story of non- Latin domain addresses. IDNs in non-Latin script were made possible in 2003 and became available in 2004, but both the generic (.com and .net, etc) and country code (cc) TLDs remained in Latin characters until last week. Hundreds of people around the world, not all of them ICANN employees, have been working since 2007 to allow for the latest change. According to Baher Esmat, ICANN's regional relations manager for the Middle East, ICANN has spent $6 million since 2007 on the process.
The immediate impact of the introduction of IDN ccTLDs is likely to be a reactivation of the domain name market now that Arabic -- and the host of languages that will follow -- has entered the game. In the words of Ahmed Gharbeia, an information technology expert, it will be the "biggest thing ever since the collapse of the Internet bubble 10 years ago". Egypt's Arabic ccTLD "isn't a bad thing," he says, and is long overdue, a "technical milestone that should have happened 20 years ago".
Proponents of Arabic ccTLDs go further in their assessment of the importance of the development. They believe that all-Arabic domain names will boost Arabic content which currently constitutes just one per cent -- less in some estimates -- of the Internet. The availability of Arabic domain names, as opposed to already taken Latin ones, will also encourage companies and small and medium enterprises to register, says TeData's Osama. "This will open the Internet internally, inside Egypt, because it will also be available for individuals," he adds.
This is a welcome development. Hitherto, Egyptian authorities have prevented individuals from registering .eg Latin ccTLD, which remained the prerogative of licensed companies and organisations. "Now there will be room for creativity," says Osama.
His point is: a lot of Egyptians do not speak English and will be encouraged to either have their own Arabic domain name, or will be attracted to the Internet when they can enter an address in Arabic characters rather than Latin. The phenomenon is best demonstrated in mobile phone use, he argues, where market penetration is high -- 72 per cent, or 56.49 million according to ICT Ministry data -- because users have the option of choosing an Arabic interface and exclusively using an Arabic keyboard.
The Internet is a different story. There are only 17 million Internet users in Egypt, which has a population of 77 million. Osama believes the number of users will increase by 10-15 per cent in 2011 as an indirect result of Egypt's Arabic ccTLD.
ICANN's Esmat emphasises the market's dire need for Arabic domain names, positing a clear link between this and Arabic content.
"To many people in Egypt and the Arab world Latin characters might as well be Chinese," he told the Weekly. "Who do you think the next 10 million users in Egypt will be? They'll probably be young people who prefer using Arabic if given the option, and will prefer using Arabic domain names. This will matter to them."
Yet the link between Arabic domain names and Arabic content remains hypothetical.
Gharbeia, who has been active in the technical issues involved in Arabic content, argues that domain names are essentially "symbolic". The address or URL of a web page "is not a natural language, it's a computer language". And most users, he points out, do not type website addresses into their browsers to access a site but reach it most commonly through a link that they've received in an e-mail, on a FaceBook page, through a Google search, etc. In most cases, simply clicking on the link is enough to take you to where you want to go.
So what impact will Arabic domain names have in terms of content?
There's no immediate link, says Gharbeia. Arabic content can benefit at a deeper level, with "the availability of publishing and content management systems [CMSs] that better support Arabic, or that perform accurate spelling and syntax checks and corrections, or dictation, speech synthesis and semantic analysis. Even good screen fonts," he told the Weekly.
Another issue of concern is how regulations and the procedure of registering new TLDs will pan out. The security aspects of the process are very present in the mind of Gharbeia, as well as in the minds of politically conscious Internet users. Egyptians enjoyed free Internet access points in many cafés until a government curb was implemented less than two years ago. The new system imposed on café owners made it obligatory for them to offer a monitored wi-fi service through mobile phone operator MobiNil.
"With regards to the Internet there are two camps that are not always in agreement," said Gharbeia, technocrats who want to increase Internet use and Internet expansion, and those who want to "reset" any developments to "conform with their political and security concerns".
It remains to be seen whether the efforts to bring IDN ccTLDs to non-English speaking potential Internet users prove to be worth both the time and money. In the non-virtual world it is customary, indeed it is seen as creative, for Egyptian advertising companies to market products, whether on street billboards, in the print media or on TV -- bilingually, using Arabic-English text. The vast majority of Cairo's shops, supermarkets, hotels and food outlets prefer their signs to be in English -- in violation of the law which stipulates that they must be in Arabic unless registered as foreign businesses -- or bilingual. Will the virtual world prove to be more in sync with our mother tongue now that we're in the dot masr era?