In our 2014 World Report on IDNs, we reported on the work of ICANN’s Task Force on Arabic script IDNs, an initiative of the Middle East Strategy Working Group. The Task Force focuses on technical issues and solutions related to Arabic script IDNs to promote their definition, secure deployment and ease of use for the community. ICANN funds and coordinates the work of the Task Force.
The Task Force consists of 30 members from 15 countries covering more than 10 languages of the Arabic script, including two linguistic experts in African Arabic script languages.
The Task Force’s work includes:
Developing rules for generating Arabic script labels, both at the top level and second levels
Developing rules for recording user contact details for Arabic script domain names (these are currently required to be in Latin script), and
Issues relating to universal acceptance, character variants, associated software, security and training.
In February 2020, I caught up with Baher Esmat, ICANN’s Vice President of Stakeholder Engagement for the Middle East, and asked him for an update on the work of the Task Force.
Emily: How does the work of ICANN’s Task Force on Arabic script IDNs impact on the issues of universal acceptance?
Baher: Currently, the Task Force on Arabic script IDNs is focusing much of its efforts on Universal Acceptance (UA). One of the Task Force members, Abdalmonem Galila of Egypt’s IDN registry (.مصر), is a ‘UA Ambassador’ from Egypt who has been leading some commendable work with the group. He has conducted several workshops on Universal Acceptance in Egypt and other parts of Africa and the Middle East. The main objective of these workshops is to raise awareness and help participants understand how they can address the issues relating to Universal Acceptance and update their systems to be UA ready. The Task Force through the UA Ambassador has recently been working with the IDN/UA Team at ICANN to develop a workshop for software developers and system admins on UA readiness as well as Email Address Internationalization (EAI). This workshop will be delivered by the UA Ambassador at a future meeting in the region, and he will also work with the Task Force members to help them run the same workshop with their local and regional communities.
Emily: ICANN’s 2016 study on domain name market place in the Middle East and Adjoining Countries highlighted a gap between vibrant social media usage across the region (and good support for Arabic language on those platforms) and domain name registrations which remain low throughout the region. Has anything changed since then? How is the work of the Middle East DNS Entrepreneurship Centre impacting on building the domain name ecosystem?
Baher: I believe this gap still exists. Interestingly enough, while the use of social media in the Middle East is one of the highest in the world, the use of domain names is one of the lowest. The use of social media in the region continues to be on the rise, whilst the number of domain name registrations remains modest. This is one of the challenges facing the domain market in the region. So far, there does not seem to be a demand for domain names coming from the marketplace. Many businesses in the region have chosen to establish their presence online using social media. Billboard ads show Facebook pages more often than website addresses for people to get more information. That makes the encouragement of domain name adoption more complex.
That said, the DNS Entrepreneurship Center has made good progress in developing DNS technical capacities and supporting IDN implementations in several countries in the region. Today, with regional needs in mind, the Center is looking to further expand its focus on the business and policy aspects of the DNS, in addition to its worthy efforts in the technical track.
Emily: When you look ahead to the next 5-10 years, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about Arabic script IDNs? What needs to be done now to ensure that Arabic script domain names have a healthy future?
Baher: The challenge is multi-fold. There is much to be done before Arabic script domain names become widespread. In general, the number of domain names across the region with respect to the population or even the Internet population is still low compared to other regions. That said, we should not expect the Arabic script domain names to rise, while growth in registrations under country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) is still very low. To tackle this, policy makers, ccTLD operators and the private sector need to come up with innovative ideas and actionable solutions to grow the digital footprint of the region and expand the use of online services. Domain names do not exist in isolation from the larger ecosystem of online services and content, and IDNs are no exception. In fact, the uptake of IDNs could be more challenging should there not be enough content in the same IDN language / script to serve the local community. Simply put, why would anyone use a domain name in Arabic for a website whose content is not in a language that uses Arabic script?
I believe Arabic script domain names need more time to reach the required threshold to have an effect. With many countries in the region currently undergoing digital transformation initiatives, it seems that we are heading in the right direction, and as the entire ecosystem evolves, domain names including Arabic script domain names will eventually begin to be used more widely in the region. So I can say that I’m cautiously optimistic.
The other key challenge is Universal Acceptance. This is a global issue affecting not only new top-level domains including IDNs, but also Email Address Internationalization (EAI). ICANN is working with the Universal Acceptance Steering Group, on raising awareness of UA amongst policy makers, software developers, and system administrators. Our hope is that we can elicit their interest and encourage them to take the necessary steps to ensure their systems are UA ready. To date, there has been tremendous effort by all, but as always there is still more to do.