Are Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) The Answer To A Multi-lingual Internet?

Recently, Tanzania hit the headlines with its announcement that it was ditching English and adopting Swahili as the sole language of instruction at both primary and secondary school level. This move elicited mixed reactions from various people, with some hailing the move as bold and necessary, while others critiqued it as a dangerous move that is set to isolate the East African country from the outside world.

From an Internet Governance perspective, imagine if, every time students wanted to visit a website, they were expected to type in letters from a language they did not speak.

Well, that's perhaps one immediate challenge Tanzania may have to deal with considering most of the content available online is in English.

By design, the Internet is a global network.

However, it was not designed to be multi-lingual. For years, this has been a limitation considering the Internet only permitted a limited set of Latin characters.

ICANN & Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs)

Internationalized Domain Names or simply IDNs are domain names that include characters other than the letters of the basic Latin alphabet (the 26 letters 'a-z'), numbers 0-9, and hyphen '-'.

Such domain names could contain characters with diacritical marks as required by many European languages, or characters from non-Latin scripts,such as Arabic or Chinese.

Ideally, before IDNs were rolled out on a large scale, non-Latin characters could only be seen at the second, third or even fourth level of a URL.

IDNs were first introduced into the Root Zone in 2010, as countries began supporting IDN country code top-level domains (IDN ccTLDs).

Over the past decade, ICANN and community stakeholder groups have been working to support IDNs in the quest to enable a multi-lingual web addresses.

As of today, there are over 30 IDN ccTLDs that have been delegated, for instance: Russian Federation (ru): рф

Technically, this means that Russians are no longer restricted to registering domains using the Latin (.ru) country code, and may instead use the Cyrillic equivalent .рф.

In Africa, there are continuing efforts to localize and support African languages and scripts.
Prior to the AFRINIC 23 meeting in Point Noire - Congo, ICANN held a two day pre-event workshop on Internationalized Domain Names and African Languages.

The workshop focused on Languages and Scripts in Africa, and the need of African community to participate in IDN panels.

The two day session was presided by ICANN VP (Africa) Pierre Dandjinou, ICANN Africa Stakeholder Engagement and Operations Manager Mr. Yaovi Atohoun, and the ICANN Stakeholder Engagement Manager Mr. Bob Ochieng'.

This event drew together African languages and scripts experts from around the continent.

After the successful event, ICANN formed an IDN Africa strategic group, with the experts being invited to volunteer on panels in respective languages of their interest.

At the time of publishing this post, ICANN had already announced the formation of the Generation Panel to develop Root Zone Label Generation Rules (LGR) for the Ethiopic script.

IDNs & The Next Billion Internet Users

Today, the number of Internet users stands at about three billion users, the majority of whom depend on non-Latin scripts.

As the world looks forth to connecting the next billion of Internet users, the big question is: could IDNs be the answer to universal access to Internet for all?

The reply is an affirmative Yes; IDNs may just be the key to preserving national identity, culture and multi-lingualism.

Besides, IDNs could create equal opportunities for all; thus drawing us closer to achieving the idea of universal access. This will eventually empower more people to use the Internet. Therefore, as IDNs begin to take root on the Internet, the world is expected to continue shifting towards a more linguistically user friendly Internet, in which netizens around the globe will be able to surf the Internet entirely in their native languages.


In the last analysis, Tanzania may just be on the right track in the move to switch entirely from English to Swahili – now perhaps what they need to do is pool together a team of Swahili language and script experts to form a Generation panel that will closely work with ICANN IDN Africa team.

This will indeed do a lot of justice to students in Tanzania and the Swahili Language as a whole. After all, Swahili is the second most spoken language in Africa after Arabic; and East Africa may eventually be the biggest beneficiary in the long run.

Cover Image, Traditional Swahili coast door, zanzibari style, in Zanzibar | Wikimedia