Many people might expect the internet to work for all languages, and all domain names and email addresses work across all applications and online systems. The reality is 17 million users around the world cannot navigate the internet in their local languages. Not only does it frustrates users but also reduces business opportunities for companies.
Traditional Generic Top Level Domain Names (gTLDs) ended in three characters and in ASCII format such as .com, .org and .net. To increase innovation and choices, in the early 2000s the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) started to introduce new gTLDs that have more than three characters in length like .museum and .info. The number of new gTLDs has grown from 22 in 2012 to over 1,200 in 2016.
In recent years, Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) TLDs were introduced to enable people to use domain names in local languages and scripts. IDNs are formed using characters from different scripts such as Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. An example of IDNs is .香港 (Chinese characters for “Hong Kong”). The registration of IDNs sees a rapid growth since they were debuted. In the IDN world report, IDN registrations are the highest in APAC as at December 2017 – the majority of which are in Chinese.
Low awareness and priority
Nevertheless, many online systems and software do not recognize these new domain names as valid. For example, users cannot deliver email messages because their email systems do not accept domain names in non-Latin based characters. In other cases, users cannot use their email addresses in native languages to sign up for and use online applications and services such as e-commerce, social media, and government services.
According to a study conducted by Universal Acceptance Steering Group (UASG) last year, 17 million users are denied from internet access as domain names and email addresses of their native languages, predominantly non-Latin characters such as Chinese, do not work online.
“The internet interoperability issue has been around for some time. Many software developers and system architects are not keeping up with the new internet standard accurately,” said Don Hollander (pictured, right), secretary general of Universal Acceptance Steering Group (UASG) in an interview with Computerworld Hong Kong last month.
UASG is an ICANN-supported consortium that aims to advance the awareness of “Universal Acceptance” – the idea that all domain names and email addresses work in all internet-enabled applications, devices and systems.
Edmond Chung (pictured, left), CEO of DotAsia and vice chair of UASG echoed the same sentiment. "Most developers like those in Hong Kong at this point are aware of this issue but their priority level of fixing this bug is not very high.” Chung said, “Some companies don’t receive complaints from users, and don’t feel that solving this issue can bring in more income.”
Very few companies are compliant with Universal Acceptance. Hong Kong Science Museum is an exception. “The museum has understood this issue for quite some time, and makes sure its ISPs and hosting providers are aware of and are able to handle,” Chung said.
Hong Kong Science Museum noted that Universal Acceptance can bring cultural benefits, as stated in UASG’s study. The museum has been using .museum domain since 2002. In its key markets of Hong Kong and Greater China, the museum has not experienced any problems with the domain being accepted by the museum community, applications, and software providers that serve it.
Key to a digital economy
Resolving the internet interoperability issue can bring benefits to domain name and website owners, internet users, applications and software owners. It is also critical in a digital economy.
“Universal Acceptance is a fundamental requirement for a truly global and multi-lingual internet, and also a critical step in Hong Kong’s journey to a true digital economy,” said Charles Mok, legislative councilor (IT).
If more internet users get connected in their local languages, e-commerce revenues are expected to grow. The UASG’s study estimated a US$9.8 billion potential in global revenue per annum.
“Universal Acceptance allows people like website owners to choose domain names that best reflect their sense of identities and languages,” Hollander added. “It also results in better user experience, and reduces customer support burden.”
Universal Acceptance also brings in business opportunities for system integrators in Hong Kong.
“Just like the Y2K problem, this [internet interoperability issue] is one of those things companies have to fix sooner or later,” Chung said. “This represents a big opportunity for system integrators and developers to help companies upgrade their systems.”
According to Hollander, Universal Acceptance is a technical compliance process. To implement it, software developers and online service providers have to ensure that all domain names and email addresses are accepted, validated, processed, stored and displayed consistently and correctly. They can conduct source code reviews and domain names testing. “CIOs, software developers, and system architects are advised to get their systems ready before people start complaining,” he said.