By Manish Dalal
The Right to Information (RTI) Act of India, 2005, advises public authorities to provide as much information as possible to the public through various means of communication. It mandates the use of the internet as one such communication tool in making information available and accessible to all.
However, in India, the digital divide continues to be a challenge. In spite of a population of over a billion people, the total number of users accessing the internet is only around 100 million, less than 10 per cent of the entire population. Also, nearly 72 per cent of the pages on the internet are in English, while around 77 per cent of the population comprises non-English speakers. This makes the access of a predominantly English internet non-intuitive and often difficult.
Internationalised domain names (IDNs), scheduled for launch in the second half of 2011, are expected to change this trend. IDNs are domain names, or web addresses, in local languages. Historically, domain names contain American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) characters. This means domain names have used the English alphabet (a,b,c…z), numbers (0, 1…9) and the hyphen (-). While web content in various languages has been around for a long time, domain name addresses in local language scripts were launched two years ago. In October 2009, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers announced the launch of IDN country code top-level domains (ccTLDs), written entirely in local languages.
The domain name is a critical way to locate resources on the internet, and IDNs make the internet more accessible for non-English speaking countries by allowing users to access the internet in their local language. As of June, 26 countries had received one or more IDNs. India has already the passed the string evaluation phase and has entered the final phase of delegation approval by the ICAAN board for the launch of the new TLD.bharat in seven Indian languages—Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati.
The primary reason why IDNs are important is the growing number of internet users around the world, who find it difficult to recognise and use ASCII characters and reproduce them on keyboards or use software to enter website addresses in browsers. Over the last decade, the internet has internationalised its audience and has provided a platform for services beyond those targeted at speakers of Latin-based languages. IDNs are expected to offer the entire internet ecosystem—government/policymakers, registrars, businesses and consumers—new opportunities to explore, gain access and grow.
IDNs would significantly enhance user experience and may make it possible for more people to access the internet with greater ease. With IDNs, people all over the world would be able to type domain names in the languages they are familiar with. Businesses may be able to advertise their websites in local languages, ensuring effective targeting. By adding IDNs, domain name registrars would gain the opportunity to expand registration services and potentially increase revenues with their existing infrastructure. As internet usage grows with the use of IDNs, the promise of its impact on social and economic development in India, increases manifold.
The author is vice-president (Asia-Pacific), Verisign Naming Services)