Africans fight for a piece of the Internet pie

The regional conference of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which was held in Cape Town and ended yesterday (Sunday), saw a strong emphasis on the importance of Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) that accommodate African languages. This could be a giant leap towards achieving communication and economic development in the continent.

The conference kicked off on a positive note, when Icann announced that it is now possible to use local languages for Internet domain names and content.

In a movement to internationalize domain names, IDNs will recognize distinct African languages and characters without necessarily encoding them into English. This means that African languages with characters different from the English alphabet can now be used easily.

Currently domain names only recognize English alphabets and letters, and, where local languages are used, the meaning is often distorted due to lack of relevant accents on the key boards.

Mouhamet Diop, an Icann board member from Senegal, who describes this change as a “technical challenge”, said IDNs are a good choice for Africans.

With IDNs, communities and organizations will have to register domain names, and their language will be unicoded. A dictionary will also be developed to allow registrars throughout the world to pick it up, install it on local servers and use it.

Communities will, therefore, also be responsible for developing their own relevant linguistic tables. Senior engineer at the Thawte Internet security company, Valentin Nemeth, says IDNs will also protect IP and trademarks.

“It will now be possible to secure trademarks that are not necessarily in English because there will be international standards,” he says. Diop, however, argues that policies must be formulated to fight trademark infringement.

The IDN question has became urgent over the last three years, as Icann has had to respond to a wave of protest from Asia-Pacific countries, such as Japan, China, Korea, and, most recently, Africa, around the language issue.

Another burning issue at the conference was the formation of Africa’s Regional Internet Registry (RIR), the African Network Information Centre (AfriNIC). It is said that structures will soon be set up for Africa to assign its own Internet addresses to users in their own languages.

At the time of going to print, nothing had been mentioned about Icann’s intention to form an African branch.