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A domain of one's own: Will non-Latin web addresses make the internet less Western facing?

Updated Monday 3rd February 2014

Egypt was one of the first countries to roll out web URLs which used local characters - an online revolution which coincided with a social one. Could there be a link?

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Internet cafe in Cairo Creative commons image Icon John Kannenberg under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Copyright BBC

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Gareth Mitchell

Hello, I'm Gareth Mitchell, presenter of Click.  Thank you very much for downloading this extended interview.  Now fancy setting up a web address like idrink.starbucks or idrive.honda.  It’s a bit of a development on the restrictive and rather boring .coms, .orgs and .nets of the past, yet this week, the corporation that regulates internet domain names has broadened the range of possible domains, aimed largely at businesses with the desire, and indeed the cash, it’s not cheap, to buy that distinctive online identity.  Now it follows a similarly significant move that came into effect last year, opening up the internet to non-Latin so-called country code top level domains, or CCTLDs, so the familiar .be’s, .fr’s and .in’s were joined by top level domain names expressed in Arabic characters, so other scripts including Thai and Tamil, well they were to follow as well.  So is the web now that little bit diverse, now that millions of users can type in web addresses in their own script rather than being forced to use unfamiliar Latin characters?  Well Egypt was an early adopter of the new Arabic domains.  A year into the new order, I caught up with George Victor of the Egyptian National Telecom Regulatory Authority, that’s the body that oversees the web in Egypt.

George Victor

To tell you the truth, you know this past year was not that easy one, not only on the internet perspective but on the political level in Egypt also.  But the point is that we believe in Egypt that this project will help in Gaza and engage more online users.  The first year after the introduction of the Arabic domain names in Egypt is really pull off policy making decisions and raising awareness about the product and making online campaign to raise awareness in the community, because not every internet user in Egypt here know how, what is meant by Arabic domain names.

Gareth Mitchell

And is the issue largely with everyday internet users, or is it also partly down to businesses and companies not fully understanding that they can now for instance put up their sites using Arabic domains?

George Victor

Well this is a very good question, because actually this implies to the policies that we formulated within the implementation of domain names, because first when we launched the project on three main phases.  The first phase was dedicated for trademark owners and government entities, the second phase was for companies, organisations, clubs, parties, newspapers, magazine, or whoever has a paper that indicate his right to have a domain name.  And finally, the third phase which we are about to launch a few months, will be for any individual can just whatever name he likes.  From our understanding the importance of having a domain names for companies, businesses, not only government entities but also in the private sector and civil society, so we started by launching into those three different phases to assure that everyone would have the opportunity to have his own name.

Gareth Mitchell

I suppose that many of the services that people in Egypt use might be things like Facebook or Twitter, where obviously they have a .com domain.  So people are so used to using non-Arabic domains, is this new move that we saw last year, does it really make any difference?

George Victor

Well, totally true, you know.  People now are using Facebook and Twitter, but when talking about Arabic domain names we are talking about a different type of users.  We are talking about having users which are not online now, people with language disabilities, people who are having language as a barrier to connect online.  So no-one can deny that people today are using Facebook and Twitter and using tiny URLs and most of the time using Google to search for the websites they need, but this will never, I believe from my point of view, will never replace the domain name system in general.  Let me add to this that the Arabic domain names will help to win the engagement of a new segment of internet users.  Let me here put you an example; when we look at the mobile market in Egypt, when the Arabic language is introduced to the mobile phone hardware, we found a tremendous increase in the number of subscribers, because now people who do not understand English can have a mobile phone with Arabic language, they can SMS in Arabic, they can browse the calendar and make a to do list in Arabic, so whenever the barrier of language is removed, everything will be easier and then we can engage more and more people online.

Gareth Mitchell

So do you think the fact that you now have Arabic domains ultimately is going to increase the diversity of what your Egyptian web users and mobile users have in front of them, the information they are able to use?

George Victor

Yes, yes.  We believe that this is a great step that will open your horizons for many e-services in Egypt.  It will have its direct impact in largening the number of online users, but let me first introduce that engaging more people online is not mainly depending on domain names in Arabic, we have also a few other issues that must be taken into consideration.  For example, we need first to have people connected online first, so we are planning to have a broadband plan, a broadband strategy to cover people in rural areas so that they will be first connected to the internet.  Then after being connected you have to provide local content.  It doesn’t make sense that applying an Arabic domain name on an English content website, isn’t it?

Gareth Mitchell

Sure, I agree.  Tell me what the experience is like at the moment.  When you sit on the internet in Egypt, how Egyptian does it feel, you know, how Arabic is the experience?  I mean do you feel that it’s a rather americanised internet or do you feel ownership of the web as you sit there as an Egyptian user?

George Victor

Well I will tell you one example that will clearly answer your question.  People in Egypt now are using a, are inventing a new language called Franco-Arab language or online internet or SMS language.  People here write Arabic words in Latin characters.

Gareth Mitchell

So phonetically then, is it?

George Victor

Yes, yes.  So this means that if possible, if they have the chance to write in Arabic characters, it would be much better because they will understand each other much better in their own home land country language, in Arabic language.  Having domain names in your own language is a point of having a local identity, it’s not only having just a domain name in Arabic language or in Chinese or in Cyrillic, the point is that you have your domain name with your own language, your home country language, so a part of having more people online, this will also facilitate people, for example in Egypt if we have an example like an organisation like el-Ahram for example, if they want to adjust their domain name in English, so they would write el-Ahram in Latin characters which have, we can write el-Ahram in Latin characters in five different possibilities, so people will have to guess whether el-Ahram is EL or al-Ahram AL, so this will create some sort of confusion to the internet users, whereas if we look at the Arabic domain names, it’s only one option, el-Ahram, in Arabic language we have no other option to write.  So Arabic domain names also will eliminate this type of confusion for the internet users.

Gareth Mitchell

Moving to the fully Arabic domain names, has that had any effect or bearing on the revolution and social change that we've been seeing in recent months?

George Victor

Ah well this is a good question, you know.

Gareth Mitchell

It’s a big question.

George Victor

Yeah.  Frankly speaking, I cannot tell that there is a direct impact between the revolution and the Arabic domain names.  I believe that after the revolution, everything now is related to the revolution.  Did you have a coffee after the revolution or before the revolution? 

Gareth Mitchell

It’s so easy, isn’t it, that whole discourse of revolution, it can go a little bit over the top maybe.

George Victor

Yeah.  You know, no-one can deny that the internet played an important role in the Egyptian revolution, and especially with social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, but when we analyse the situation we cannot tell that the social media is fully responsible for the revolution, nor irrelevant.  The role of social media was critical because it helps to spread the idea between people how to unify people under one goal and one effect.  When coming to domain name system, and especially Arabic domains, people during the period of revolutions, they don’t have time to actually write a domain name on their browser, they just open their Facebook and write on their wall and share tweets, and so the point is that Arabic domain names did not help in engaging people for example under one goal during the revolution.  However, after the revolution, we as a government of Egypt catch the opportunity of having people more aware about the role of internet on their daily life, and when we start to have a constituency amendment, we created a website with an Arabic domain name as a sort of marketing force idea, which was called ‘stifte dot mos’, and this website offered information about what types of amendments there will be in the new constituency etc.  So post revolution, we believe that post revolution is much more opportunity to engage people and market the idea of the importance of having an Arabic domain name.

(10’08”)

 

This is an extended version of the interview broadcast as part of Click on BBC World Service radio, June 21st 2011.

Update BBC News 2nd February 2014: DotShabaka top-level internet domain goes live

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