ICANN And The Future of Internet In Sri Lanka

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We all use the Internet for a variety of different things. With advancements in technology, we are even able to read our favorite content in our own language. But one thing that has not changed is the literal web address.

Despite us being able to read newspapers and articles in our preferred language, the URL or web address of that particular website remains to be in English, but that all might change in the not too distant future.

At a media briefing held yesterday (12th) at the Hilton Colombo Residencies, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) discussed the evolution of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) and its potential implication for Sri Lanka.

What is the ICANN?

Champika Wijayatunga, the Security, Stability and Resiliency Regional Manager at ICANN spoke about what ICANN is and what they do. In case you were wondering, the ICANN or Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers deals with assigning names and numbers to web addresses. So what is their interest in Sri Lanka?

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Image Credits: Digital Trends

Well, according to Champika, the future of the internet lies in how we can bring more accessibility by bringing local languages. He spoke about how we all use the internet to carry out our everyday tasks. He also emphasized that it is equally important for us to know the technology that goes on behind the scenes to know exactly how it works.

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Champika Wijayatunga, Security, Stability, and Resiliency Regional Manager – ICANN addressing the gathering

Champika then got down to the brunt of the matter. Currently, domain names for web addresses are typed in English. If you take Facebook as an example, its web address would be www.facebook.com. The suffix of a web address (in this case the .com) is referred to as a top-level domain. The name of the web address (Facebook) would be the 2nd level domain.

ICANN plans to change all this with its new Generic Top-level Domain program. Here they could introduce country code Top-level domains as well, along with internationalized domain names. The IDN would enable the global community to use a domain name and access content in their native language or script.

The formation of a Generation Panel

Sarmad Hussain, IDN Programs Director at ICANN explained that in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese and Tamil are commonly spoken languages, the IDN program will enable non-English speaking Sri Lankans to access content online using their native scripts. In order for this to succeed, the formation of a Generation Panel (GP) must be implemented.

As the ICANN has no expertise in the localization of the scripts for Sri Lanka, the panel would consist of local experts from policy, technical and linguistic fields. The GP would also help determine rules to form valid top-level domains in the local script.

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Sarmad Hussain – Internationalized Domain Name (IDN) Programs Director – ICANN

There are a few challenges here though. For starters, domain names are restricted.  In English, the name is limited to a-z and 1-9. Sinhala gets a bit more complicated as the GP would have to decide on what letters to be used for the web addresses. This could also have an effect where the same sound of the letter can be written in a number of variants.

In addition, the new web addresses must also remain secure and stable. Text that is visually identical can be vastly different in numerical forms and have different scripts.

Sarmad went on to explain that ICANN has worked with all the script communities across the world. He also noted that ICANN would consult with local communities headed by the UCSC to form a group who will look at all the usability aspects for these scripts in order to develop a proposal to be submitted to ICANN so that Sri Lanka can have localized TLDs.

What about the Sinhala Generation Panel?

That’s where Harsha Wijayawardhana’s views were expressed. Harsha, the co-chair of the Sinhala Generation Panel spoke about Sinhala Unicode. He went on to talk about how research on Sinhala computing began at the Universty of Colombo.

Sinhala was encoded in Unicode in the late 1990s and implementation of Sinhala Unicode began in early 2000s. From there, Sinhala Unicode was released after 2004 on Windows XP and the University of Colombo, the University of Moratuwa and the ICTA along with many other individuals and organizations contributed to the development.

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A brief history of Sinhala Unicode

Since then, Sri Lanka became the very first country to introduce a localized domain such as .lk in both Sinhala and Tamil scripts. To that extent, the LK Domain registry became the very first organization worldwide to release domain names in non-roman scripts.

With regard to the generic Top-level domains, Harsha is confident that the work will be completed by July. Following that, anyone can check if the top level domain they’re looking for is available or not. Harsha emphasized that Sinhala and Tamil localized scripts for generic Top-level domains will be very useful for those in villages in the north and in up country areas.

How viable is this, really?

While the concept here sounds interesting, it does raise a few questions. First off, while it would be pretty cool to type a web address in Sinhala or Tamil instead of English, how many people are actually fluent in typing in Sinhala or Tamil? While there are numerous keyboards available in the market that have the Sinhala characters inscribed on them, finding the proper script would be another challenge.

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Trilingual Keyboards exist but are a bit of a challenge to get used to
Image Credits: MyDeal.lk

In addition, even though the domains would be made available, the people in these villages would also need laptops or PCs to access the content. Depending on how rural the area is, they may even lack internet access or electricity as well, so a localized domain would be of no use to them.

A problem with international domain names is that it takes too much effort. For example, the Japanese language might require the user to type more characters to get to the same website. Similarly, the Sinhalese language too might have multiple characters to get the same website. This essentially puts a limit to people that only speak Sinhala and Tamil fluently.

Security is a concern too

Then there’s also the issue of security in terms of a security domain hijack. For example, the same web address in English might lead to a different website in phonetically converted to Sinhala. A hacker could also change the letters in the web address to lure unsuspecting visitors and steal their information.

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By simply changing a character in a web address, you could be a victim of a phishing attack
Image Credits: Practice Velocity

Overall though, the fact that we could finally get localized top-level domains is an appealing concept. Let’s just hope that it can be launched and carried out successfully.

What do you think about this? Leave a comment below.

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