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Web addresses may adopt non-English characters

The Internet may truly go global with the approval of a new multilanguage domain name system that will let people use Asian or Arabic characters for entire addresses.

The Internet may be getting friendlier for a significant chunk of the world. A proposal is up for a vote to let Web addresses use non-English characters.

The proposed change (PDF), known as Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), will allow the use of non-Latin characters in the entire address. Currently, such characters are allowed only in part of the address. IDNs will let people who write in Chinese, Korean, or Arabic use their own languages to surf the Web, and is expected to jump-start Internet use in many regions across the globe.

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is responsible for managing domain names on the Net, will review the historic, hot-button proposal on Friday at its six-day 36th International Public Meeting in Seoul. If approved, IDNs could kick in as early as mid-2010.

"This is an extremely important meeting for ICANN, since the IDN program is moving one step closer to reshaping the global Internet landscape," ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom said in a statement. "In Seoul, we plan to move forward to the next step in the internationalization of the Internet, which means that eventually people from every corner of the globe will be able to navigate much of the online world using their native language scripts."

IDNs are not a new concept. They've been debated for at least a decade. Some doubted whether such a system could work. But countries like China have taken the lead in pushing for this change.

Of the 1.6 billion Internet users worldwide, more than half use languages with character sets other than Latin. Beckstrom sees the change as necessary, not just now, but for the future as Internet use continues to grow.

One of the challenges behind IDNs has been the use of translation technology to convert one character set to another to deliver the right address. But ICANN seems to have covered that base.

"We're confident that it works because we've been testing it now for a couple of years," Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of ICANN's board, said in a statement. "And so we're really ready to start rolling it out."