IDNA and its impact on the global web


Get ready for a fracturing of the Internet domain name space and the global Internet looking far less homogenous and more like the ancient town of Babel. And a lot of it has to do with International Domain Names in Applications or IDNA.

The Internet and its user applications have long been dominated by the ASCII character set that is familiar to English speakers – or at least a combination of characters that are designed to be spoken and understood.

With the implementation of international domain names (officially International Domain Names in Applications or IDNA) in the root of the DNS by ICANN in the near future, it appears that your favorite applications (email, browser, IM, etc.) are about to be multilingual, potentially leading to a fracturing of the Internet domain name space and the global Internet looking far less homogenous and more like the ancient town of Babel.

I first learned of international domain names from a recent conversation with David Conrad, the General Manger of Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). As David explained, IDNA is a mechanism for domain names to appear to contain non-ASCII characters.

This means that a business that operates in a geography (or wants to reach a community from a geography) that does not use ASCII characters would be able to represent themselves on the Internet by using their native character set. Without diving into the social and political issues that are far beyond my areas of expertise, this intuitively makes sense to me but has global significance on how we use domain names.

For example, if a local Chinese bakery wants to build a website, why should it have to come up with an ASCII character representation of its domain name, especially when most of its customers may speak Chinese and have a Chinese character keyboard? Users with a Chinese input device would type the proper characters into their browser and be directed to the bakery’s website.

For users without a Chinese input device who want to go to the same bakery, things get more complex. IDNA describes a manner where users enter into their application a Punycode, or a string that provides a way to translate non-ASCII to ASCII characters, defined by RFC3492. This mechanism is beneficial as it removes any concerns about backwards compatibility with existing Internet applications and services.

However, this means that the ASCII character user has to type a string that begins with “xn--” into a browser or email client if they want to reach the Chinese bakery (Wikipedia gives a good example of Punycode encoding for the Swiss domain bü into the Punycode Today, both IE and Firefox support Punycode, as do other browsers and some email servers.

And here is where the Internet starts to resemble Babel. If IDNA takes root (no pun intended) and every country starts to use domain names with non-ASCII characters, how will those of us with ASCII input devices find these domain names and their associated Punycodes to enter into our applications?

How will we know that the Chinese bakery even exists? Better yet, how will someone with a Chinese input device be able to reach a website or email address in a different non-ASCII domain (such as Cyrillic, for example) if they cannot enter a Punycode string with the “xn—” characters?

In the end, I think that international domains make intuitive and practical sense even if they will force a change in user behavior. IDNA is leading us toward a fractured domain name space based on native language characters sets and while I am not a sociologist, this feels like the globally correct thing to do.

Anyone have a business plan for a Punycode Babel fish that I can fund?

Allan Leinwand is a venture partner with Panorama Capital and founder of Vyatta. He was also the CTO of Digital Island.



IDNA is going to work perfectly with the prototype OLED keyboards That will hopefully make it to production and widespread distribution. This will open up the web for a whole lot more people, I will be able to learn some new languages by using them everyday, and I’ll finally get to try out that Dvorak keyboard I’ve always read about, but never have forked over the bucks for. Now if they would just make an USB OLED version of the Data Hands Pro II, and I will be a happy keyboarder.

David Wrixon (aks Rubber Duck)

Seth, you know not what you are talking about. Unless somebody else has rights over a name then anyone is entitled to register what they like. It is only squatting if you regiter a name which infringes the Intellectual Property rights of others.

Seth Wagoner

Does anyone else resent squatters like Rhys and Sam boasting about their ill gotten gains in public like it’s something to be proud of? No better than spammers in my book (Seth hurls rotten tomatoes)


I am a Chinese. Domain in Chinese language is the way to go for me.
I use Chinese everyday. I can type Chinese as fast as you type English. Most Chinese people do not remember English domain names (except few giant domains eg google, yahoo etc), therefore the number domains are so pupular in China ( etc). Once we have Chinese domains (å­—.com etc) we can remember the address permanently. Many Chinese businesses will love Chinese domains.


QUOTE FROM KYLE: “But after realizing the global implications, it’s not possible or functional to be implemented”. END QUOTE

This genie is way out of the bottle…
IDNs have been in development for nearly a decade, and they are online and in use today around the world. The holdup “was” the lack of browser support which has finally been resolved with rollout of Microsoft IE7 and Vista which will handle translating unicode (native languages) to punycode (a-z, 0-9 and -) which allow the IDN system to function within the existing DNS.

As a sidenote, 80% of the world doesn’t speak English and internet users will enjoy searching for URLs in their own native languages. Advertising agencies around the world are going to have an absolute field day!


It’s interesting to read all the comments from folks here who are unaware of just how far along IDNs really are. There are thousands and thousands of IDN websites up and running today. I should know. My portfolio of 1000+ IDNs in Japanese, Thai, Hindi, etc pay for themselves right now with the traffic they bring in. Couple of specific points:
1. Kyle – you can’t stop the train. Think about it, you cannot keep the world in ASCII slavery forever. They world will just break off and create their own separate internet without you. Would you rather have that? Didn’t think so.
2.The end of DNS – I think that is truly wishful thinking in the short and medium terms. If it’s going to happen before 2015, I’d be curious to hear more about dynamic hash tables. Anyway, I don’t care how many anecdotes people bring up about how Search Engines have killed type-in traffic that is just clearly not the case. People who speak english definitely type-in on the order of what looks like 15% of all search queries and they even add the .com. That’s just a fact of life and no amount of intellectualizing or generalizing your own behavior is going to change it.


As for the lookup issues, I use google as a dns anyway (in firefox type a word into the address bar which isnt a url and hit enter. it goes to the googles first hit on search results aka I am feeling lucky)

I will continue to do this if becomes a chinese language specific domain name it still would be the first hit on a google search for sina !

Surprisingly SINA being ambigous does not lead to through google

However you do get the picture … Victor is right, In lots of ways domain names are extinct … I had to search for delicious for the first few times i visited the site .. I think search based addressing is what people will be using anyway !

Man the ignorance i read makes me LMAO , but its really sad.

I will just say to Kyle many big company’s already own there names in different languages. ie : Akia , Wal-Mart , Yahoo , Google ect. Its not going anywhere buddy please read up !


You guys don’t get it, do you? Why force the rest of the world to use ascii domains when that is not their language? Here’s a riddle? How do Japanese find ascii domains? Search engines and bookmarks. Not everyone needs ascii on this planet. If you ever decided to look for a Chinese bakery in China, you could search for it (SE). But why would you do that if you didn’t have a Chinese keyboard?


I’ve bought hundreds of these “IDNs.” If you guys could see the traffic increase in terms of percentages from October of 2006 compared to April 2007… it might just give someone a stroke.

Lets just say I’m sitting pretty right now.

Vishu Gupta

Correction to previous comment:

For example, a website with chinese URL
will be concerned with people not knowing
how to type chinese.

For example, a website with only a chinese hostname will probably not be concerned with people not knowing how to type chinese.

Pankaj Narula

How many times do I use the URL for going to a website. For me personally it would be, etc. Most of the time I google it. But yes IDNA would be helpful as browsers will have better support for URLs containing unicode chars. Consider two similar URLs belowमेरी-चाय-लैब/

Both of them point to same page.


Vishu Gupta

Allan, as you noted briefly in your post, the primary motivation of the current IDNA design (use of punycode) is that no plan to support international domain names would have succeeded if it required changes to the DNS servers all over the world.

As far as typing xn--* in the browser is concerned, whether a website uses an international hostname or not will depend on the market it is catering to. For example, a website with chinese URL will be concerned with people not knowing how to type chinese. I expect that websites which have both chinese and non-chinese users will continue to have ASCII URLs, and with IDNA support in browsers have the option to have an additional chinese url for people who only understand chinese.

For phishing all the browsers have adopted interesting and different strategies to combat that problem. How it works out in the long run is still to be seen.

My views…


Allan Leinwand

Kyle – I think you make some good arguments, but IDNA is being implemented. As you can see from this timeline, the lab tests were just this March and we appear to be moving toward implementation. Get ready to practice your “xn--” URLs and email addresses….

Allan Leinwand

J – You bring up a good point, but why does even need an ASCII domain name representation of their business? Why should the domain name not be in Chinese characters?

It’s true that there are multilingual pages on the web today, not entirely that you need a multilingual input device or Punycode to get navigate – that day is coming.


“Better yet, how will someone with a Chinese input device be able to reach a website or email address in a different non-ASCII domain (such as Cyrillic, for example) if they cannot enter a Punycode string with the “xn—” characters?”

Most non-latin input methods use the standard ASCII keyboard. For instance, most Chinese IME’s have some variation of: you type the sound of the word using standard ASCII keyboard and then software shows you the characters that match that sound.

In other words, the above quote is not an issue at all. Everyone still types initially in ASCII and the IME will always allow you to switch back to that.

The internet is already babel. Does make anymore sense to a none-Chinese speaker just because the domain name is easy to read in English? I don’t think so.

Kyle Brady

This makes sense, when you first think about it. But after realizing the global implications, it’s not possible or functional to be implemented.

Consider this situation:
-Currently, Google owns localized domain names to target certain viewership, like [The UK, duh], [primarily the U.S.], [China], etc.
-These localized domains are all provided in the native language of the area
-These localized domains all have content specific to the area

So if we have a current and working solution now, why implement a complicated one that will cause problems all over?

Would Google, Yahoo, or any other company have to go and register the translation of their name in every single language in order to maintain a stronghold on that copyright/trademark? That could mean a large sum of money being wasted on purely domain registration.

Also, once the domains are non-ASCII’d, will the designer have to develop using different methods and standards? Right now the W3 Consortium does a very good job… but can that be maintained once the GLOBAL internet fractures into many LOCAL intranets?

This is not worth the hassle, as it is problematic from the start. I sincerely hope this topic goes nowhere and is forgotten.


Victor Blake

If Dynamic Hash Table (DHT) mechanisms continue to develop (beyond say the torrents they are currently used with) — won’t they just replace the application (content) functionality that DNS provides today ? By analogy — isn’t DNS as meaningless (in such a future) as area codes are today (with number portability)… The topic BEGS this question ….

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