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The appropriation of Balkanisation


Dušan Stojičević, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Serbian National Internet Domain Registry Foundation (RNIDS), wrote a blog-post for the Ukrainian Network Information Centre (UANIC) website. The entire blog-post is available here.  

Every time I hear the term “Balkanisation of the Internet” I have to remind myself what they mean. As a Balkan man, and a Serb, old enough to have lived through the wars in the former Yugoslavia, I realise they are talking about the break-up of the Internet. This (mis)appropriation of the word “Balkanisation, whereby the former Yugoslavia is identified with the Balkan region in its entirety, bundling the Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians and other south-eastern peoples into the same negative category and in doing so seeking to depict the Internet as being pulled apart by the launch of IDN domains, was one more reason for me to address these issues surrounding IDNs. And I am sure of one thing – that this usage of the word is wrong, and what we are seeing is not the break-up of the Internet but a natural step in its development.

The more the merrier

With its origins in the US, it is no surprise that the entire computer and IT industry is based on the English language and alphabet. Languages such as Ukrainian, Serbian, and those of other nations, have accepted (for want of a better word) terminology from the English language in order to be able to describe the various innovations in the areas of computing, the Internet and the other information technologies. This is perfectly normal and can be compared to what happened with German terminology in the auto industry.

However, as computer technology went global, almost all operating systems “learned to speak” other languages, and could now display content in different scripts. Soon we saw keyboards tailored to different alphabets come onto the market, and so there was now a complete solution to using computers in local languages and scripts. Companies such as Microsoft, Apple and others did this for one simple reason – to increase profits by expanding the number of users to those (a significant number) who did not use the English language. The same thing happened with mobile phones, and with the Internet.

There have long been websites using other scripts, many sites are multilingual, and everything runs smoothly. The only part of the entire system where, until recently, local scripts had not been accepted, was domain names. Then, a few years ago, IDN domains were launched, allowing non-English scripts to be used. Thus today we have the very successful .УКР domain, the first ever Cyrillic domain .РФ and the Serbian .СРБ TLD. Everything would be fine if it weren’t for the technical problems.

A half-finished product

Besides more minor issues such as the display of domain names in mobile browsers etc., one of the major problems with IDNs is email. In light of these problems, we might term IDNs a half-finished product. But the worst of it is that the technical problems cast doubt on the rationale for introducing IDNs.

“Localisation runs counter to the Internet’s global nature, and brings insurmountable technical problems with it” – this is the kind of statement we commonly hear. Actually, the opposite is true. The domain name is a type of content – it is user-selected. It is important for SEO, for company identity, and is an important piece of data. Depending on its intended purpose and target audience, you will typically first select the top-level domain you want to use, and only then the domain name. If you are addressing a local audience you will want to write your content in the local script and will choose to publish your content on a local domain. If you are targeting a global audience it is likely you will use the English language and script and choose a global domain that uses the English alphabet. Nevertheless, a global business will not neglect the local market, and will have two domains. So using a local domain does not negate the use of a global one, or vice-versa.

Universal acceptance

The technical problems are an issue which is quite separate from the nature of IDNs. Almost everybody in the technical community realised that there were problems, but were waiting for others to solve them. So ICANN, the organisation which manages domains at the global level, rolled up its sleeves and got to work. A special working group is currently being set up to catalogue all the issues and, in consultation with large and small software companies, to develop solutions that will lead to universal acceptance. Universal acceptance is defined as the use of any domain in any script without any obstacles. You can read more about this at the following link. 

I would like to invite you to join us in resolving the problems and pursuing our common goal: domain names that will work across all platforms and services, and will present no difficulties to the user.

Instead of a conclusion

A people is defined first and foremost by its culture, language and written script, and all these things must be preserved if they are to continue to exist as a people. As a Serb I choose Cyrillic and the .СРБ domain, and send warm greetings to the Ukrainians – may there be a million .УКР domains! To end with, my name is Dušan Stojičević, not Dusan Stojicevic.

Dušan Stojičević
Chair of the Board of Governors of the Serbian National Internet Domain Registry (RNIDS)
Co-Chair of the IDN Project Group within the ICANN UASG
Member of the Cyrillic Generation Panel, ICANN