As we approach the World Cup in South Africa this June it's heartening to see the amount of attention being paid to the continent. As with ICANN's recent Nairobi meeting, the eyes of the world are focusing on Africa in a new way — as a sophisticated marketplace, and as a destination for investment, technology, and yes, sports. This will be Africa's first World Cup, and you bet I'll be there… at least until the Brussels ICANN meeting begins. Still, as we prepare for the Cup and as we celebrate ICANN's recent approval of more Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), our job as an Internet community remains unfinished. Too many scripts and thus too many key voices remain "off the pitch".
There's no question that much has been done since the news about new IDN country code top level domains (ccTLDs) was announced in Seoul. At this writing over a dozen IDN strings have been approved by ICANN, from countries as diverse as Jordan and Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and the Russian Federation. That said, there is much more to do.
First there is the question of smaller, less populous scripts like Amharic, or Georgian or Khmer. For languages such as these, IDNs are in some ways even more critical for economic development and cultural preservation. And yet, many smaller scripts may never get built out on the web if simple market forces (and high application prices) continue to define the terms of play. FIFA — the ICANN of football — spends money to help build up the sport in Africa, with stellar results in countries like Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire. Why shouldn't ICANN do the same to encourage under-represented languages reach the field, by dropping prices and providing group pricing that would encouraging registries to build out IDNs in multiple languages big and small?
Then there is the question of the new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) — especially those representing cultural or linguistic communities. A .Zulu or .Hausa or .Quechua on the web could be a very vital, valuable gathering point for ethnic communities that in many cases stretch across borders and with the diaspora even across regions. They can provide what is in some way the best of the Internet, a way of cataloguing and sharing literally thousands of years of history, art and music while also helping traditional communities gain a viable foothold in an English-dominated e-commerce world. Still, it's hard to see many of these community gTLDs affording the $185,000 application price (not including legal costs) plus another $75,000 more each year in ICANN fees. Wouldn't preferential pricing for such communities make sense here?
Finally, speedy movement on IDNs for existing gTLDs must be on ICANN's short list of things to do. For while there is a great deal of understandable enthusiasm about new ccTLDs, the simple fact is that the cc's are only half of the equation. As I'm watching the USA-Tunisia match from Brussels (sadly), literally thousands of Tunisians will be tuning in to sites like SoccerArabia.net. But they won't be able to reach it using an IDN gTLD. Especially in diverse regions like the Arabic-speaking world, for the good of e-commerce, for the good of economic development and for the benefit of football fans, IDN gTLDs also need to be moved along as fast as possible.
In soccer we have a saying: "Let the ball do the work." However, when it comes to building out the net there's work we need to do. Right now ICANN, like FIFA, is touting its own accomplishments, and there's no doubt progress is being made, with the creation of a Working Group on new gTLD applicant support as just one example. Simple changes to ICANN's approach — incentivizing build out in smaller scripts, dropping prices for cultural communities and moving forward faster with IDNs outside the country code space — will help complete this work, enabling more people from around the world to get in the game.
By Andrew Mack, Principal at AMGlobal Consulting
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