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ICANN understand you now: Non-Latin characters approved for domain names

New rules from ICANN allow for characters from all languages to appear in URL Web addresses. Let's get ready to 파티에 나가다!

Let's get ready to 파티에 나가다! ICANN, the body that organises domain names on the Internet, has approved non-Latin characters in Web addresses and top-level domains.

ICANN has been massaging the DNS system for a couple of years to get it ready to handle Web addresses with non-English-language characters, encompassing everything from Arabic and Chinese characters to accented letters in French. That means URLs will go from using 37 possible characters to over 100,000.

"The coming introduction of non-Latin characters represents the biggest technical change to the Internet since it was created four decades ago," said ICANN's Peter Dengate Thrush.

The change should make the Web more democratic and global, since non-English-speaking surfers won't be forced to use domain names that don't reflect their own language. We won't have too long to wait before we start seeing the new URLs. ICANN says that it will accept applications by 16 November, and sites will be online by 2010.

Adding support for the thousands of new characters required an overhaul of the DNS system, the backbone of the Internet that gives each connected computer its own unique ID in the form of an IP address. But the challenges posed by the change aren't just technical.

The huge range of new characters will also give scammers a newly loaded gun for firing off spoof Web sites. Because some characters look similar or identical in different languages, scammers could replace a letter in a URL with another to try to redirect visitors to the wrong site. The scam would be very difficult for users to detect because, at first glance, the URL would look correct -- only a computer could see that the letter 'a' in has been replaced with a Cyrillic letter 'a', for example.

Makers of Web browsers have already started implementing changes to help surfers spot these fakes, by alerting them when an address uses a mixed character set, for instance.