ICANN gives in to Hebrew, Hindi, other scripts

The board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — or ICANN — voted to allow the use of Hebrew, Hindi, Korean and other scripts not based on Latin characters in so-called domain names at the conclusion of a weeklong meeting in Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

The decision by the nonprofit body’s 15 voting members was unopposed and welcomed by applause and a standing ovation. It followed years of debate and testing.

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The result clears the way for governments or their designees to submit requests for specific names, likely beginning Nov. 16. Internet users could start seeing them in use early next year, particularly in Arabic, Chinese and other scripts in which demand has been among the highest, ICANN officials say.

“This represents one small step for ICANN, but one big step for half of mankind who use non-Latin scripts, such as those in Korea, China and the Arabic speaking world as well as across Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world,” Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s CEO, said ahead of the vote.

Domain names — the Internet addresses that end in “.com” and other suffixes — are the key monikers behind every Web site, e-mail address and Twitter post.

Since their creation in the 1980s, domain names have been limited to the 26 characters in the Latin alphabet used in English — A-Z — as well as 10 numerals and the hyphen. Technical tricks have been used to allow portions of the Internet address to use other scripts, but until now, the suffix had to use those 37 characters.

Many of the estimated 1.5 billion people online use languages such as Chinese, Thai, Arabic and Japanese, which have writing systems entirely different from English, French, German, Indonesian, Swahili and others that use Latin characters.

Software developers still have to make sure their applications work with the non-Latin scripts. Major Web browsers already support them, but not all e-mail programs do.

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The Internet’s roots are traced to experiments at U.S. universities in 1969 but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that its use began expanding beyond academia and research institutions to the public.

The U.S. government, which funded much of the Internet’s early development, selected ICANN in 1998 to oversee policies on domain names. ICANN, which has headquarters in the United States in Marina del Rey, California, was set up as a nonprofit with board members from around the world.