The Worldwide Web Just Went Global

What is the tipping point for when a project actually goes global? As far as I'm aware, no specific metrics determine when a project is actually global -- Web publishers who launch their U.S. Web sites in English in the U.K. and Australia will often describe their organization as global.

Tim Berners-Lee, original inventor of the Web, was truly ambitious in naming his hypertext project the World Wide Web in 1990. While he can be forgiven in the light of what subsequently developed, he was equally guilty of describing a network which at that point didn't exist outside of CERN and certainly wasn't worldwide.

Berners-Lee, and his fellow creators, also fell into the western English trap of thinking that all things start with English. In the 19 years since he first started on his information superhighway project, English or Latin characters have been at the heart of what makes the Web tick.

As with any major software project, re-engineering to manage characters that are double-byte, such as Chinese characters, really means a re-build from the ground up. In other words, we'd have to pretty much forget hypertext transfer protocol and adopt a different method of linking computers together via a Web. For a moment, try and imagine the upheaval that this process might have entailed for Web publishers and marketers around the globe -- and then quickly move on because this won't be good for your health.

Fast Tracking the Global Web

Enter ICANN. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers takes responsibility for IP addresses, generic and country codes (i.e., domain names). ICANN gets involved in the management of the Web in all sorts of odd ways and, as a not-for-profit organization, has been gradually moving away from United States control.

Make note of November 16, the birthday of the "global Web." It was at ICANN's October 30 meeting in Seoul, South Korea that ICANN formally agreed the fast track process toward the launch of "internationalized domain names." This will allow countries to apply for Internet extensions that reflect their name but -- most importantly -- these can now be written in their own character sets.

Take Russia for example. The Runet (pronounced 'r-u-net') describes the portion of the Internet that runs in the Russian language. As this part of the Internet has grown, it has taken on an identity of its own encouraged by the Russian authorities.

Now that part of the Web, which may have to be renamed "Rfnet" in view of Russia's aspirations to run Russian language sites with the .rf domain name using Russian characters, will be able to run entirely using the Russian alphabet rather than Latin characters or masked-Latin characters.

This should result in many more Russian-speakers joining the Web with their smaller business or personal Web sites who wouldn't normally have any need to use Latin scripts.

Similar situations apply in China, where the number of Internet users is rising all the time. Already ahead of the U.S., being able to navigate, manage, and operate Web sites in Chinese, including the URLs and domain names, should bring vast numbers of new users to the Web.

Why Wasn't This Done Before?

Why has this taken so long? Why are we only now thinking of fast tracking? The reason is that ICANN didn't want to "break" the Web.

Even though, in the foreground, this change will make the Web seem much more universal to all people, in the background ICANN has implemented a huge translation workaround that needed to be tested for absolute safety. And when you're taking on well over 100,000 potential characters that appear in URLs as opposed to the 30 or so which were in use before, you really need to take care.

"This is only the first step, but it is an incredibly big one and a historic move toward the internationalization of the Internet," said ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush in Seoul. "The first countries that participate will not only be providing valuable information of the operation of IDNs in the domain name system, they are also going to help to bring the first of billions more people online -- people who never use Roman characters in their daily lives."

In two weeks, all countries will be able to apply for Internet extensions reflecting their name and using their own characters. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on domains, trademark specialists, and on the domains we know and love. It will also have an impact on search engines.

The expression "keywords in the URL" will now have a truly global meaning and affect the way we manage global sites. Clearly, someone just put their foot on the global gas pedal.