Coming Soon: A Truly Chinese Internet

As the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), wraps up its spring meeting in Beijing, the Wall Street Journal reports on the impending launch of Chinese-language options for top-level domains - the tail end of most Web addresses (.com, .net, .org, .cn, etc.):

Speaking in an interview Wednesday, Fady Chehadé, president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the private body that oversees the basic design of the Internet — said the organization would roll out Chinese character options for top-level domains in the second half of 2013.

[...]Although Chinese characters can already be used in the main part of a web address, Chinese websites have tended to stick with Roman URLs. Mr. Chehadé said many companies and organizations have been waiting for Chinese language address endings before launching full character addresses.

“In China the numbers will be staggering once we release the all Chinese character” domain names, he said.

TechCrunch notes how this changes ICANN’s Internet governance policy, and refers back to the Wall Street Journal report to explain that this is part of a strategy to reduce criticism of its hegemony over the DNS system:

The announcement marks a change in tune for ICANN, which was created in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Commerce to manage domain names. The organization has resisted previous efforts by China, Russia and other countries to control Internet addresses, and been criticized for not letting each country manage their own Internet addresses. In December at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, China was among a coalition of countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, that submitted a proposal to gain more sovereignty over Web addresses, which faced opposition at that time from other nations including the U.S., Germany and the U.K. Critics said that allowing different countries to manage their own Web addresses could potentially lead to charges being placed on data transmitted over international boundaries.

According to the WSJ, the language additions are “part of ICANN’s push to reduce global opposition to its regulatory power by leaving behind its U.S. roots and becoming a more international organization.” Another sign that the organization wants to work more closely with China includes the launch of an “engagement center” in Beijing to collaborate with the government on issues like URL trademarks.

Arabic, Korean, Russian and Japanese options will also be available when the new top-level domains are launched.

Though ICANN is a private, nonprofit organization, it has long been criticized for its close relationship with the U.S. government. For an in-depth explanation of ICANN’s history, responsibilities and controversial role in Internet governance, see the “Global Internet Governance” chapter in Rebecca MacKinnon’s book Consent of the Networked