It’s no secret that the Internet is largely a place where the English language is used, and that’s to be expected. Air travel is in English, most technology is; virtually everything to do with computers is in English. So, why not all aspects of the Internet? Well, that may be fine for most websites, but as the Internet truly becomes global, domain names have to shift into non-English names. This is what is known as IDN (an Internationalized Domain Name).

Most domain names make use of ASCII characters; what are known as American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Essentially, this is the English alphabet, numbers and symbols. For most languages, this is fine. But, if you are trying to do a domain name in Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Hindi or Russian, ASCII does not support their alphabets. To allow for these types of domain names, the IDN system was proposed back in 1996, and finally implemented two years later using what came to be known as IDNA: Internationalizing Domain Names in Applications. This thus allows domain names to contain non-ASCII characters. Yet, there was still a problem: email and web browsers; both of them were still unable to support such characters. It wasn’t until a few years after 2000 – into ’04, 05’ and ’07 that browsers were developed to handle these other languages.

The actual mechanism for the handling of these non-ASCII letters and symbols are complex computer algorithms, but the steps they take are quite straightforward. A domain name is divided into labels, and then each is translated. As an example, look at the website Bucher.ch (with two little dots over the “u”; in German this is what is known as an umlaut). Now, the “.ch” is the country code for Switzerland, and it is straight ASCII; so it does not get changed. But, the German word, as it contains that single non-ASCII character has to be converted. It gets changed to xn-bcher-kva! Not the most appealing domain name, but it works.

A problem with this type of conversion is that it leaves the domain owner wide open to someone “squatting” on their original name. If someone simply registers the domain name Bucher.ch – without the umlaut over the “u”, they can snag the website, and it is all perfectly legal. As a result, if you are looking to set up a non-English domain name, you would be well advised to get the name translated to English and then also register that domain name as well. Also, if you domain name makes use of a word (or words) like the example, you should also register it that form. Even though “Bucher” without the umlaut is not a valid German word, non-German speakers might still type it in. Unfortunately, many Americans are woefully ignorant of other languages, and they know next to nothing of the proper letters and grammar of non-English alphabets.

As recently as 2008, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was still debating a means of protecting non-English domain names. Each generation of the web browsers and the conversion algorithms improve the domain names, but the same problems still remain.