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The Rise of Cyrillic Domain Names

Stéphane Van Gelder

This week, on a cruise ship navigating Russia's Neva river, around 250 domain registrars and resellers are gathered for the RU-CENTER annual domain conference.

RU-CENTER is the largest Russian registrar in a market that is dominated by three companies. RU-CENTER and competitor Reg.Ru both manage around 28% of domains registered in the country's national suffix .RU, whilst a third registrar R-01 (also part of the RU-CENTER group of companies) has 18%.

RU-CENTER is also a figurehead for Russia's drive to make Internet use more palatable for those who are not natural ASCII writers. Because the Latin alphabet has been the only available option to browse the Internet up until now, and because Russian Internet users learn Latin characters anyway, having to use a foreign script has not dampened their drive to get online and reap the Web's many benefits.

But give them a chance to type in Cyrillic, and Russians jump at it. That became evident when the country launched its own Cyrillic country code, Dot RF (Latin script spelling). Pent up demand for full local language web addresses meant Dot RF exceeded all registration expectations as soon as it went online. Now in its third year, the TLD already has almost 800,000 registrations compared to the 4.5 million names in Russia's original (ASCII) ccTLD Dot RU.

That trend could grow as the new gTLD program allows further Cyrillic script suffixes to be created on the Internet. "Even with new gTLDs, it seems the market is underestimating the potential for Cyrillic domains," says RU-CENTER's Marketing Director Pavel Khramtsov. "We've only seen 8 IDN applications in Cyrillic script in this first round."

By initiating the implementation of Dot Moskva, RU-CENTER became one of these Cyrillic IDN pioneers. The domain is one of a pair, the other being the Latin character version Dot Moscow (www.domainmoscow.org). "That's where we expect the highest demand to come from," explains Sergey Gorbunov, head of RU-CENTER's International Relations division. "Because Russians have become so used to Latin characters as the default that the ASCII string "moscow" is likely to be considered the more recognisable brand when they both launch."

But the Muscovite pair may help change that. On top of the hunger for Cyrillic URLs that Russians have shown through Dot RF, the Moscow twins stand to help further the Cyrillic IDN cause because of their geography. The majority of people accessing the Internet in Russia do so from the Moscow area. "On average, around 40% of the total pool of Dot RU and Dot RF domains are registered by people from Moscow area," Gorbunov says. The country as a whole has an Internet penetration rate of around 70%, with up to 50 million Russian going online every day, making Russia the number one source of Internet users in Europe (European economic power-weight Germany is number two). But most of that traffic comes from Moscow.

So having a local script TLD for Russia's Capital may make the rise of the Cyrillic script on the Internet even more of a reality. Both TLDs have been prepared and applied for with the support of the local authorities. The project is being coordinated by a non-profit foundation called the Foundation for Assistance for Internet Technologies and Infrastructure Development (www.faitid.org), or FAITID for short (pronounced "fated"). FAITID's governance structure is based on the multi-stakeholder model and brings together users, local government, business and industry to ensure that Dots Moscow and Moskva serve the local Internet community. As an example, FAITID and Moscow city officials are working on reserving a number of second level domains such as school.moscow or museum.moscow for public service use.

The plan was to launch both TLDs at the same time. "For domains like Dot Moscow and Dot Moskva, it's easier to launch them as one, with a single roll-out and marketing plan," says Gorbunov. "It also means less confusion for the end-user." But ICANN's prioritisation draw put paid to those plans. As an IDN, Dot Moskva was a priority application in the December 2012 draw used by ICANN to determine the processing order for the 1930 applications it has received. Moskva drew number 69, as compared to Dot Moscow's 881. A huge gap which means the only way for both launches to coincide is for one to be put on hold whilst the other can play catch-up. "Because of the draw results, FAITID is now planning a long Sunrise period for Dot Moskva before moving on to initiate the rest of the launch schedule when Dot Moscow gets the green light," Gorbunov reveals.

It's still unclear when that would be. Partly because of general contract negotiations currently going on between ICANN and both the registrars and the registries, which need to be resolved before ICANN can put contracts on the table for new gTLD operators to sign. But even when that happens, Moscow will have to wait for more contract negotiations to be done. This time, it will be direct talks between FAITID and ICANN. "The current registry contract as proposed has clauses which are illegal under Russian law," Gorbunov explains. "We also have problems with the trademark clearinghouse because Russian law requires FAITID to give Russia trademarks priority. So doing a Sunrise where the trademarks registered in the clearinghouse get priority is a challenge."

FAITID is hoping for a November Dot Moskva Sunrise. That assumes 2 months for these specific contract negotiations so that the foundation no longer finds itself between a rock and a hard place, having to decide whether to stand foul of its national law by signing the ICANN contract as-is, or to refuse the contract and risk having to give up on its TLD application.

That would be a pity for the millions of Internet users around the world who want to be able to type their web addresses in their own alphabet. Especially as Russia's innovative and cutting-edge Internet community could push the IDN system as a whole to new heights. "Email use remains limited with IDNs," says Khramtsov. "Most of the systems currently available can only work if both sender and receiver use the same technology provider. But this limited use does have some advantages. Spam is non-existent with Dot RF emails for example, because the technology for doing IDN spam just isn't there."

Imagine an Internet where spam is heavily reduced by applying new techniques first developed for namespaces which are younger and can therefore afford to start afresh and apply new solutions to problems which have plagued the ASCII Internet since its inception. This is just one way in which the development of local-language web addresses could help the Internet as a whole, ASCII namespace included. A true embodiment of one of the new gTLD's program founding goals "to open up the top level of the Internet's namespace to foster diversity, encourage competition, and enhance the utility of the DNS."

By Stéphane Van Gelder, Consultant
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