Tangled Webs

    Double-Byte Division
Issue 6.1
Feb 2, 2001


Last December domain registrars the world over began accepting registrations for double-byte domain names. Until now, domain names have been restricted to standard ASCII characters, but the new domains allow names in Japanese, Korean, and Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters as well.

Proponents claim that double-byte domain names will help break down language barriers, increase the amount of multilingual content on the Internet, and make it easier for non-English speakers to use the Net. I admit that I am rather cynical by nature, but as far as I can tell, these new domains serve only to line the pockets of the domain registrars and provide no substantive benefit to the Internet community.

The Cash Machine

Contrary to the claims of some proponents, restricting domain names to ASCII letters, numbers and a few punctuation marks is not a linguistic or cultural issue. It is simply a way of ensuring interoperability. Just about every international standard in existence, from ISO country designations to airport call letters, restricts itself to similar characters.

The characters in question can be entered using almost any computer system on the planet and, as such, they represent a least common denominator. The characters do, of course, come from English alphabet, but you would be hard pressed to convince any Japanese that "Mitsubishi" is not a Japanese word, or that entering www.mitsubishi.com into a browser is anything but trivial. In fact, to enter Mitsubishi's double-byte domain requires that it first be entered in ASCII letters and then converted to Japanese characters. The new domains are actually harder to use in that sense.

The winners here are not non-English-speaking Internet users, but the domain name registrars. Companies who held ASCII domains are now forced to register multiple double-byte variants to protect their brands. As a result, the registration of these new domains has proceeded with all the clam and order of a gold rush.

Over a million domains were registered in the first month at prices ranging from $35 to $100/year. Keep in mind that these figures are not a one-time charge. The domain holders will have to pay a like amount each and every year to maintain the rights to those domains. And, if that were not enough guaranteed annual revenue, Network Solutions has announced that it will soon be accepting domain registrations in Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. More languages will follow whenever they feel the need to add a few hundred million dollars in recurring revenue to their bottom line.

No Harm Done?

It's rather tempting to shrug this whole thing off as one big corporation squeezing other big corporations for relatively paltry sums. However, there is a bigger issue here. We might be seeing the beginning of the Balkanization of the Internet.

Removing the least common denominator requirement effectively partitions off portions of the Internet. I can't even give examples of the new domain names because most of my readers' will be unable to display them, let alone visit them. Sites using a double-byte domain will be effectively unreachable by the majority of Internet users.

It can be argued that this is not a problem since a web site with a Japanese domain name will be in Japanese, but current trends speak against that claim. More and more sites are multilingual. I suppose a different domain could be used for each language supported, but I fail to see any advantage in such a scheme.

The Internet, however, is more than the Web, and it certainly seems likely that employees of a Japanese company with a double-byte domain name will need to communicate with a someone whose computer does not support Japanese. Likewise, there will be those outside Japan who will want to download a file from a Japanese FTP server. Double-byte domains will make this difficult. Fortunately, for the moment, the new domain names do not work with email or FTP.

The most amazing aspect of the Internet, that from which all else springs is ease and freedom of communication: The ability for a person in Minsk to communicate with someone in Osaka, Dallas, Seoul or Johannesburg. Double-byte domain names hinder this ability since they can only be entered by computers running a specific language. Extensive use of these new domains will effectively prevent communication between individuals who find themselves behind the walls of their national domain name schemes. Hardly the World-Wide Web we have come to know.

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© Copyright 2001, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
This article fist appeared in the January 30th edition of The Japan Times.
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