By Victoria Shannon International Herald Tribune
October 29, 2006
PARIS Vinton Cerf, a communications expert known as a father of the Internet, said Sunday that he feared the network's addressing system would break down if "political gambits" by international groups or national agencies interfere with plans to expand the languages used in domain names.
On the eve of the first ever United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum, which opens near Athens on Monday, Cerf said national interests had surfaced in recent weeks that would change the process for "internationalizing" Internet addresses. The fresh conflict shows that the high- level global debate over U.S. influence and control of the global network is still unresolved, he said.
Cerf, who is chairman of Icann, the U.S. group that has been the target of the global venting over Internet governance issues, would not name the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, or the Chinese government as sources of the latest friction.
But he noted that both have been vocal about how Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has moved forward on using non- Latin characters in domain names.
"My concern is the potential for suddenly choosing another path after Icann has already put in six years of work on this," said Cerf, who is known in telecommunications as a diplomat as well as a pioneer. "Either they will fail, or they will break the Internet."
Officials of the ITU, which is made up of 191 member governments and exists to coordinate global radio-frequency issues, were unreachable in Athens on Sunday night, as were members of the Chinese delegation to the Internet Governance Forum.
At the heart of the latest split is the issue of allowing non-Western characters to be used in Internet addresses.
At present, only 37 characters can be used; Icann is gradually implementing a plan that would expand that set to tens of thousands of characters from all of the world's languages. Then, for instance, a Japanese business could use native characters in its own Web address, and a Japanese Internet user could find the company that way, rather than being forced to use the 26 Roman letters or a Western-style computer keyboard.
Already, several Asian character sets have been approved, but Icann has not signed off on a system for using international symbols for the part of the Internet address that represents the top-level domain, such as .com or .net or .jp.
The standards-setting Internet Engineering Task Force as well as an independent group made up of private-sector experts are involved with the process, and some of the results began going through tests on the Internet in Sweden last week.
"It is turning out to be quite difficult to integrate this very large character set in a way that is safe and stable and will work with many applications for many decades to come – to future-proof it," said Cerf, who in 1973 designed the network communications method that paved the way for the Internet called TCP/IP, or transmission control protocol/Internet protocol.
He and other Icann officials say that what they see as a careful and considered approach is being construed by others as stalling or an attempt to undermine the use of foreign, non-English characters.
"In meetings we've held, there has been a very visible, and understandable, impatience," he said. "Language is clearly bound up in national and cultural pride. They are seeing domain names as language-based, when in fact they are really just symbols that help us find places on the Internet."
To Cerf, who also is a senior vice president at Google, the resurgence of the governance issue and U.S. dominance is symbolic of a long-term "misunderstanding about the role of Icann."
While various international agreements over the past two years have formally established that the United States does not control the Internet, and while Icann has made some efforts to include increasing global representation, the recent debate shows the issues "haven't been" successfully dealt with.
"People are continually drawn to these questions for reasons that are not necessarily well-intentioned," he said. Specific-language interest groups may be "willing to accept a system that works in Country X and aren't worried that it won't work in Country Y," he said, acknowledging that China would be an example.
When that happens, the uniformity of the Internet addressing system – the mechanism that allows one computer to reliably find another anywhere on the network – breaks down and fractures into separate networks that can no longer universally communicate, Cerf said.
At a separate three-week conference in Turkey starting next week, the ITU will consider broadening its mandate to encompass information technology issues. Cerf said there was "a high probability" that the ITU would try to increase its responsibility over the Internet during the session, at which it would also set its strategy for the next four years and elect new leadership.
One of the resolutions that will be offered during the ITU session involves raising its profile in the internationalized domain name process.